Sex assaults, hostile in-laws: life for widows of India’s farmer suicide epidemic

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 2:00pm, 17 November, 2019

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  • Over 200,000 farmers have killed themselves in the past 20 years, driven to despair by crop losses and debt

  • The wives left behind are often sexually assaulted, and struggle to inherit their husband’s land – even while being saddled with his debt

Manisha Uke’s daughter, Janhavi, plays at home. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Manisha Uke checks herself in the tiny mirror on the wall, one last time before heading out. Gently, she dabs powder under her left eye where black patches have developed from clotted blood.

“You have to show them you are tough,” says Uke, 29, “even if you are broken inside.”

Uke has felt broken many times in the past two years. First, when her husband, Manoj, hanged himself in the family home. Manoj, a farmer, had despaired at his inability to repay a debt of US$1,122 as he battled repeated crop losses and a leg injury that prevented him from working.

Just months later, while she was still recovering from the loss, she woke to find her sister’s husband trying to force himself upon her while she was sleeping.

A month ago, that feeling of being broken returned.

Her brother, who had opposed her decision to lead an independent life outside of the family following her husband’s death, arrived at her village drunk and caught hold of her as she was walking to the local government office. He demanded she give him her wages and showered her with insults.

“He said I was sleeping with men in the village and that is why I could afford to live alone,” Uke recalls.

He grabbed her hair and threw her to the ground before punching and elbowing her in the face, leaving her with the large, black bruises she is now trying to powder over.

Manisha Uke, in her newly-built house made of mud, dried twigs and cloth, with one of her daughters. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Uke comes from Amravati in the Vidarbha region of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, the epicentre of an agrarian crisis that has been raging for the last two decades.

In this period, more than 200,000 farmers across the country have taken their own lives, driven to despair by a vicious circle of mounting crop losses and growing debt.

More than 60,000 of the deaths occurred in Maharashtra, many in Vidarbha. Heavily rain-dependent, the region’s farming community has suffered immensely due to climate change, with both frequent droughts and unseasonably heavy rainfall playing havoc with crops.

Uke’s troubles are typical of those faced by widows in a deeply patriarchal society that often mistreats them at their most vulnerable moment. Sexual and physical assaults like those faced by Uke are not uncommon. Some widows are thrown out of their homes and have their property confiscated by unsympathetic families.

While the state and the media focus on the plight of the male farmers, their husbands’ suicides are often only the beginning of the struggle for these women. With the loss of their family breadwinner they face not only the prospect of raising children with extremely limited income, but they also inherit the debts their husband left behind.

Social security payments for those widowed by the agrarian crisis are basic, to say the least – a monthly pension of US$8.40 and a subsidised food grain supply. Often, the payments are irregular.

Indian women work at a farm on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. Photo: AP

In the neighbouring district of Wardha, Jyoti Jagtap, 30, has faced a similar battle since the suicide of her husband, who was struggling to repay a debt of US$4,000.

Days after his death, her in-laws refused even to allow her to enter the kitchen. They were clear – she had to leave their home. Jagtap refused. With no source of income for herself, she struggled. “But then I started working as a shet mazdoor [farm labourer]. So, the money started coming in, slowly.”

However, her attempts to earn an income angered her in-laws. She ignored them until matters came to a head and her father-in-law, incensed at her persistence, assaulted her.

Last year, a survey conducted in the region by Makaam (Forum For the Rights of Women Farmers) found that 40 per cent of widows had not been granted the rights to their husband’s farmland, and only 35 per cent had the rights to the family house.

The reality facing the widows is that obtaining property rights is fraught with social complications. Often, the husband’s family does not trust the widow.

“So, they don’t want to transfer the land or house to her, because the family thinks she will usurp the property. They don’t understand just how difficult it is for these women to raise their children,” says Aarti Bais, co-founder of Swarajya Mitra, an organisation that works with the region’s widowed women and female farmers.

Aarti Dandane outside her village home. Photo: Kunal Purohit

‘STOP FEEDING HIM’

Aarti Dandane learned this the hard way. Her husband, Vishal, a farmer, killed himself in April last year after repeated crop losses caused tension with his family. Dandane, 23, was shocked. The pair had been deeply in love when they married three years previously and had defied everything from their families’ wishes to societal expectations surrounding caste to be together.

 

Without even pausing to think about her five-month-old child, she drank toilet cleaner in a bid to kill herself.

She survived, but received little sympathy from her husband’s family.

“Instead, they gently told me to stop breastfeeding my five-month-old,” recalls Dandane.

At first, she did not understand the request. A few days later, the family let it slip.

 

“They told me I should go back to my parents’ home and leave my son to them. They wouldn’t be able to take care of me but they wanted to raise my son. First, they needed to wean him off me.”

Dandane refused and left their house in the Wardha district of Vidarbha.

She feels guilty about returning to her parents, who belong to the tribal Gawari-Gond community, as she is unable to contribute monetarily.

Her in-laws have blocked her from inheriting her husband’s land and home.

“They said they would grant my son these rights when he grows up,” Dandane says.

Indian farmers from Tamil Nadu state stand next to the skulls of farmers who killed themselves, during a protest in New Delhi. Photo: AP

AN INVISIBLE STATE

Often compounding these problems are the policies of Maharashtra state.

Until recently, the Maharashtra government had refused to recognise women as farmers, as land is seldom in their name. Policies mandate that only those farmers who have land in their name be given farm-credit.

 

As a result, women – and especially widowed women who have been denied property rights – find themselves ineligible for credit and are thus forced to turn to loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates.

Following pressure from Makaam, the body fighting for the rights of female farmers, the Maharashtra government has promised to prioritise the transfer of property rights to widowed women. But campaigners say there has been little action on the ground.

 

“Often, these rules remain on paper. In rural settings, the information about these schemes is either completely missing or is broken,” says Bais, of Swarajya Mitra.

Bais says she knew of a widow in Amravati who, when applying to transfer the property rights of her dead husband, was asked to perform a sexual favour on a government official in return.

Manisha Uke, in her newly-built house made of mud, dried twigs and cloth, with her children. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Despite their many troubles, the widows are not giving up. Each is fighting back, in her own way.

Uke is pursuing a police complaint against her brother for assaulting her, even as she settles down in a new house that she built for herself and her three daughters, its walls made of mud, dried twigs and cloth.

 

Jagtap has built a house on her family’s land, right next to where her in-laws live.

“I keep thinking that my husband must have thought of me before he hanged himself. He must have trusted me to handle everything well and raise our kids, so I want to keep doing that,” she says. 

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