Indian farmers' widows suffer threats to children over land - report

Farmers from the southern state of Tamil Nadu display skulls which they claim are the remains of Tamil farmers who have committed suicide, during a protest demanding good rates for their crops and crop insurance scheme from the government, in New Delhi, India, September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

An upsurge in suicides has prompted the state to write off farmers' debts and offer subsidised loans and insurance, but many of these benefits are denied to widows

MUMBAI, Oct 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Widows of farmers who have committed suicide in western India face abuse and threats to their children's safety when they demand their inheritance, highlighting the risks vulnerable women face in claiming rights over property, a report said.

Thousands of farmers kill themselves every year in Maharashtra state over failed crops and mounting debt. The most common reason cited is the inability to repay loans for seeds and fertilisers.

While an upsurge in suicides has prompted the state to write off farmers' debts and offer subsidised loans and insurance, many of these benefits are denied to widows, according to the study of 157 farmers' widows.

"Widows in India have always been ostracised and abused; farmer widows suffer the additional stigma of the suicide and the debt," said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director at the advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network, which published the report.

"They face eviction (by their in-laws) if they ask for their share in the family home or land," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.

Chaudhry said the woman's in-laws would also often threaten to deprive her children of food or pull them out of school if she tried to make a claim.

The study published this month focuses on the region of Vidarbha, in eastern Maharashtra, which has been struggling with drought for four decades and accounts for many of the state's farmer suicides.

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 and a burden to the husband's family, with whom they typically live.

Denied land, many farmers' widows in southern Tamil Nadu state are forced to resort to sex work, activists say. 

India's constitution gives women equal rights but custom dictates that land is inherited by male sons. Although the law states that a widow is the legal heir to her husband's property, in practice she is seldom allowed to stake her claim. 

Nearly three-quarters of rural women in India depend on land for a livelihood, yet only about 13 percent own land.

"Few of these widows have their names on the documents for the home or the land, and there is little awareness about land laws and legal procedures to transfer titles," said Chaudhry.

"Even when their names are on the documents, very often they are denied access to their property by the husband's family, or they may be too afraid to ask."

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