Hey Change Maker! My guest this week is Linda Mandrayar of the White Rainbow Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering destitute widows in India by giving them love, hope, job skills, counseling, food, & medical care.
We begin the episode with some discussion about Linda’s back story and how the White Rainbow Project was started. Linda’s husband, who is originally from India, was her first connection to the country. Her journey with White Rainbow Project began when she was introduced to the book Homeless Bird, which captures the struggles of a 13-year-old girl in India and the stigma she faces after being widowed. She learned that in northern India, when women are widowed, they are abandoned by their families in Vrindavan, India’s “City of Widows”. Widows in Vrindavan must fend for themselves, living a life of penance in the hopes that they’ll be better in their next life, as women are often blamed and seen as bad luck if their husbands die. This behavior is founded in the Hindu belief system, which focuses heavily on the concepts of karma and reincarnation. Unfortunately, many of these widows are subject to exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment.
After learning about the culture of widowhood in India, Linda and her husband decided to make a movie, which they called “White Rainbow Movie”. Linda and her husband filmed in India for about a year, but faced a lot of opposition while making their movie. Many of the locals believed that the widows deserved their fates, and thought that Linda and her husband were interrupting karma cycles. Though they faced opposition in northern India, Linda and her husband were able to achieve a limited release of the movie in southern India. White Rainbow Movie was also well received in America at various film festivals. The film raised awareness about the plight of widows in India, and many people wanted to step up and help after they learned what was going on. Thus, White Rainbow Project – the 5013C – was born. Since founding White Rainbow Project about ten years ago, the organization has grown to open facilities in both northern and southern India, and has partnered with locals to help run day-to-day operations.
Linda and I then take a deeper dive into the stigma behind widowhood. When a woman is widowed, the expectation is that she shed all color and only wear white going forward. In many places, especially in northern India, a woman is seen as no longer necessary once her husband dies. Linda relays that while this treatment of widows and the stigma behind it is interwoven into culture all throughout India, it’s very hidden. The Indian government tried to ban the release of Linda’s film because they did not want to shine a negative light on Indian culture. For those families in northern India that leave their widows in Vrindavan, they feel like it’s in the widows’ best interest to try and repent for their bad luck so they can be born into a better life in their next life. While widows are legally allowed to remarry in India, most don’t. When I ask Linda about the treatment of men who are widowed, she explains that the stigma attached to female widows does not apply to men. Linda describes how unlike women, men are not blamed for the death of their partners, as men are seen as higher up within the karma cycle.
We next discuss where the name “White Rainbow” came from and Linda’s passion for working with widows. She explains that while widowed women are expected to wear white and give up all adornment and color, she sees all of the colors of the rainbow still inside these women. Linda’s heart breaks when she hears the stories of these widows and the abuse they’ve had to suffer. She can also relate to these widows on a more personal level – her mother in law, as well as both of her sisters, are widows. Linda describes how she’s always wanted to find a way to help the country, but she was always overwhelmed by the problems there when she visited. The plight of widows in India grabbed her heart, and she felt like it was her calling to help.
After that, we talk about the direct impact of the White Rainbow Project in India. The White Rainbow Project creates centers of learning and partnerships to empower, employ, and educate widows and at-risk women in India. While the Indian government has built shelters in Vrindavan to help support the population of widows (an investment driven by a showing of Linda’s movie to members of Indian congress), Linda describes these shelters as cold, cramped, and uninviting. The White Rainbow Project’s centers are designed to have a more inviting, cozy, and intimate feeling. The staff at these centers invite widows to come have a snack, relax, and be themselves. The centers teach women skills and provide them with salaries if they choose to participate in the various crafting projects. Linda describes how the widows are taught to sew and create jewelry to produce scarves, tunic tops, and beaded bracelets and necklaces. Additionally, the White Rainbow Project provides counseling and medical care. Linda describes how despite funds drying up, their partners in India have committed to helping the widows no matter what.
Linda and I also discuss the widows themselves and how they react to the counterculture message of the White Rainbow Project. She describes the variation in reactions from the widows – some feel bitter and unworthy at first, while others absorb love right away because they know that their mistreatment isn’t right. Linda explains how vulnerable these women are; many widows are afraid to accept love initially. However, with enough spiritual and emotional support, she’s seen many widows come around to the point where they can not only receive love, but also give love in return. Some widows, especially those from southern India, will begin to wear colors again, while widows from the Brahmin caste (the highest caste in Hindu society) will be more reluctant to shed their white clothing. Linda talks about how even within the population of widows, there is prejudice and a caste system. However, at the White Rainbow Project centers, they don’t allow this type of prejudice to exist between the widows.
We then dive deeper into the products made at the White Rainbow Project centers. Linda explains how the sales of the products made at the center support all of the center’s endeavors. She describes how in northern India, where the widows are typically older, they focus mostly on bead and jewelry work. Meanwhile, in southern India where the widows tend to be younger, the center focuses more on identifying women who are at-risk of being widowed and teaching them skills and giving them confidence. The biggest issue the White Rainbow Project faces is how to market their products, as the products are really only marketable in the USA. Linda talks about the advocate program they’ve developed, which is designed to incentivize people to gather monthly sponsors and also help sell White Rainbow Project products in exchange for commissions and discounts on products.
As we wrap up the episode, I ask Linda who inspires her and why. Linda calls out the women she works with, Mother Teresa, and her partners in India as inspirations to her. Listeners are encouraged to watch the White Rainbow Movie, which is available for free on YouTube, and visit their website, www.whiterainbowproject.org. The organization needs monthly sponsors, as those donations are the backbone of their ministry. Linda also asks listeners to consider joining their advocate program, and describes their annual “Walk for Widows”, which happens on June 23rd every year. Listeners can use this walk to raise funds and awareness for the White Rainbow Project.