NAGAPATTINAM, India, Aug 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Last year farmer Veeramani leased a modest plot of land from his village temple in southern India to grow rice. He borrowed 40,000 rupees ($625) to prepare the field before the rains.
Then the rains failed. Veeramani, 31, was so distressed he suffered a massive heart attack on his field and died, leaving behind his wife, Kavita, and two young daughters. He also left a sizeable debt that Kavita was not aware of.
Kavita, who worked alongside her husband, has until the end of the year to make good on the lease. But with Tamil Nadu state in the grip of the worst drought in more than a century, it is unlikely she will.
As she owns neither the 1.5-acre (0.6-hectare) plot of land in Kadambankudi village nor the small thatched hut she lives in, Kavita knows her options are limited.
"I only know farming. But I don't own the land, so I am not eligible for a bank loan or any of the government benefits," said Kavita, standing outside her home which is nearly bare except for a large framed photograph of Veeramani.
"Once the lease ends, I don't think I can afford to renew it. I will have to find some other way to feed my family."
Nearly three-quarters of rural women in India depend on land for a livelihood compared to about 60 percent of rural men, as lower farm incomes push many men to the cities for jobs.
Yet land titles are nearly always in the man's name.
Only about 13 percent of rural women own land, which keeps them from accessing cheap bank loans, crop insurance and other government subsidies and benefits for farmers.
"Women are being denied the right to own land even though they work on it more than men," said Burnad Fatima of the Federation of Women Farmers' Rights.
"It's a very patriarchal, feudalistic structure; the man is seen as head of the household and sole owner of property."
Men have traditionally made all decisions related to land in India: what crops to grow, how the income is spent, and whether to lease or buy land, without consulting their spouses.
In addition to cultivating the land, widows and women whose husbands have left have a new set of challenges, including dealing with land owners, moneylenders and local officials.
When women have secure rights over the land they cultivate, they gain status and greater bargaining and decision-making power at home and in their community, according to land rights advocacy group Landesa.
Such women are more likely than men to boost food security and to spend their income on the next generation rather than on drinking, which many women say their husbands do.
"Besides economic empowerment, land ownership is also a way to address inequality and violence against women," said Esther Mariaselvam, charity ActionAid's regional manager in Tamil Nadu.
"Many of these women also belong to lower castes and are treated badly. When they own land, their caste is less of a problem," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But women face numerous legal and social hurdles to ownership. Land is still transferred largely though inheritance, and it is almost always men who inherit the land.
A 2006 state government scheme to give up to two acres of land to the landless poor was meant to benefit 500,000 families, prioritising lower-caste agricultural workers and widows.
But activists say the scheme is riddled with corruption and only a few thousand families have benefited.
BIAS AGAINST WIDOWS
The drought is especially hard for landless women.
"Women are inevitably the first responders in a disaster and they experience the impact more acutely – they have to fetch the water, arrange for food, tend to the cattle, and worry about the crop," said Mariaselvam.
"So it's important they are empowered with land. They are half the population; it's time we gave them half the ownership."
Widows have it even harder. With more than 46 million widows, India has the highest number of widows in the world, according to the Loomba Foundation which advocates for their rights.
Widows face a lot of bias particularly in rural areas, where they are considered inauspicious. They are often excluded from festivals and other gatherings, and are easy prey for men looking to take advantage.
Many are forced to resort to sex work in nearby towns as they have few options to make money, said Geetha Narayanan, a woman's rights activist in Chennai.
Tens of thousands of farmers have killed themselves in the last couple of decades in India, often after accumulating debts during droughts.
The federal government has earmarked about 30 billion rupees for drought relief in Tamil Nadu, including compensation of 300,000 rupees each for families where a farmer has died.
But that money often goes into paying off debt and settling claims by his family, said Narayanan.
"Many (widows) are also not allowed to take on the lease of their dead husbands. So it's imperative these women have a small piece of land they can call their own," she said.
Landless widows in Nagapattinam do not have many options.
If she is unable to renew her lease, Kavita said she would have to seek low-paid menial labour to make ends meet.
In nearby Pirinjimulai village, Rani faces an even tougher situation. Her husband Murugaiyan hanged himself last December when the crops failed on the three acres he had leased.
After repaying his 150,000-rupee debt and settling with his family, Rani has little left from the compensation for their 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son who is mentally disabled.
"If I had my own land, I could lease it out and send my daughter to college and care for my son," she said.