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No white for these widows

By Freny Manecksha

For centuries, social reforms for widows and other single women in India have meant the setting up of ashrams and widow re-marriage. The widows who have banded together to contest their exclusion under the banner of the Ekal Nari Sangathan, in Rajasthan and other states, reject those dated solutions. These women are demanding their rights and dismissing the welfare approach. They are bringing colour back into their lives

Two dalit widows of Manyadih village

Two dalit widows of Manyadih village, Dhanbad, Jharkhand, were accused of practising black magic, tortured and forced to eat excreta. -- The Times of India, April 7, 2008

Dakkhan (witch). Raan (whore). Epithets like these are routinely hurled at widows who are blamed for any misfortune that may befall the community -- from a child getting chickenpox to a cow that has stopped giving milk.

But Moghubai from Jharol block, in Rajasthan's Udaipur district, would have none of it. She filed a defamation case against the woman who branded her a witch and lodged a case against her brother-in-law when he tried to usurp the land that belonged to her late husband. She knew she need never feel vulnerable and alone with the Ekal Nari Sangathan (Women Alone Association) backing her.

Kamal Patik of Rajasthan defied societal taboos that view widows as inauspicious. Her 'alternative family' (members of the sangathan) draped a red chunari around her and put a bindi on her forehead as she celebrated her son's nuptials in defiance of her in-laws.

A movement that was spearheaded in Rajasthan has now gathered momentum, with several other states forming similar associations that enable low-income single women to come together on a common platform to fight for their rights in a patriarchal society.

It was Harvard scholar Dr Marty Chen's revelation in the 1990s, that 8% of all women in India were widows, that sparked off the movement. "The study was an eye-opener. It meant that, at the time, there were 33,000,000 women in India who were amongst the most marginalised," says Dr Ginni Shrivastava of Astha, a civil society organisation that facilitated the formation of the Ekal Nari Sangathan (ENS).

Excluded from all celebrations because of custom, ostracised because of superstition, left vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and done out of their property rights because of illiteracy and poverty, these women lived under conditions "that were a blot on human rights". Government workers and civil society organisations were not ready to work with their problems. The women's movement had done nothing to include them. "Yet, from the work Astha had done it knew that these widows were very strong and that the women's movement would benefit from them," says Shrivastava.

The dream was to build a strong organisation that would enable women to solve problems both individually and collectively. Priority would be given to low-income widows, but the association would be inclusive of all castes, cutting across religious and age barriers.

In November 1999, the first convention was held in Bassi, 20 km from Jaipur; it was attended by 425 low-income women from 21 districts. In January 2000, the mass-based organisation included separated women -- those who had been thrown out, abandoned or tortured so badly that they had walked out.

The sangathan was formally registered in 2002 and, in October 2004, at the request of various civil society organisations in Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Bhuj in Gujarat, similar associations were set up in these states too.

In Himachal Pradesh, the association known as Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan has taken up, in particular, the problems of women who have been deserted. Globalisation has been responsible for large numbers of men migrating out of the state and abandoning their families. The association focuses on advocacy efforts. It has demanded that the state aim its policies and programmes at providing rights that enable the single woman to live with dignity, instead of extending patronage. It also seeks support for women in tribal areas to secure their property, as several tribal laws do not give women land rights.

In Jharkhand, the association known as Ekal Nari Shashakti Sangathan has to grapple with the problem of young tribal girls who are extremely mobile and vulnerable and are consequently duped by false promises of marriage by people at the worksite.

The strategy in forming these various sangathans is based on three assumptions. The first is that the women are intrinsically strong and knowledgeable and therefore a rights-based approach will be adopted. There will be no setting up of 'ashrams' traditionally associated with widows. Nor will re-marriage be part of the campaign. Whilst the associations are not anti-marriage, the emphasis is on free choice -- women do not have to go down that route if they do not want to.

The sangathans work at two levels. The block-level committee is the frontline of the organisation. Meetings are held every month where problems are taken up and new members enrolled. The state-level committee works on issues of advocacy -- lobbying with the government to initiate schemes, change laws and influence policy, like successfully persuading the government to allot drought-relief work to low-income single women, in Rajasthan. Or lobbying to have a special column for single women within the format of the state's policy for women, in Jharkhand.

At the block level the sangathan grapples with the socio-economic problems of widowhood. Most stem from procuring land and property rights. As Justice Leila Seth points out, customary law and statutory law might give a widow certain rights. In actual practice, however, none of these are effective because the woman is not socially empowered to assert these rights.

The Hindu Succession Act, for example, clearly gives wives and daughters legal rights to land owned by their husband and father. But institutionalised patriarchy ensures that few can actually possess the land. Often, social customs connive to deprive a woman of these rights. Land transfer procedures should be initiated shortly after the death of the landowner, but custom dictates that widows stay indoors, in a darkened room, for a month or even a year. Land transfer procedures consequently become much more difficult, necessitating endless trips to tehsil-level offices.

As Seth notes, what is crucial is how widows regard themselves with respect to property, what their social perceptions are and how aware they are of the law. Normally, widows do not like to raise disputes and go along with societal norms.

The practice of branding single women dakkhan is often a ploy used by unscrupulous brothers-in-law or others to terrorise the woman and usurp her land. Among certain tribal communities, levirate marriages (in which a widow re-marries or cohabits with her brother-in-law) are common. But, as a study by Grameen Development Services of Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh, on the plight of Sahariya widows, observes, this practice does not really translate to any real economic or social security for them. In many instances the widow is robbed of her land. In some instances she is forced to migrate with her new partner to worksites, abandoning her small children to the care of an aged mother.

Jharkhand and Maharashtra now have specific laws making it an offence to brand a woman a witch. Although Rajasthan does not have any such laws, ENS uses Section 499 that deals with defamation of character and which has harsher sentences for imprisonment than the anti-witchcraft laws.

In its strategy to counter land-grabbing, ENS of Rajasthan has found that an administrative approach is more practical and faster than filing a legal case especially as courts display an equally patriarchal attitude towards the concept of a woman owning property. In such cases, ENS first verifies with the patwari that the land is registered in the name of the woman. Then, a delegation meets the collector and asks him to send the tehsildar to a public gathering where the transfer can officially take place. The superintendent of police is informed to ensure there is no violence on the day of the handover. Several representatives of the government and media are invited to the gathering as are women's organisations. Then, in the presence of everyone assembled, the widow is helped to take possession of the land. In most cases these tactics work and the embarrassed male who tried to usurp the land refuses to turn up.

If the case does have to go to court ENS has a special fund for legal aid.

ENS also helps widows access government schemes like widow pensions and old age pensions or the various schemes that state governments offer. Here again the main problem is that records and ration cards are generally in the possession of the in- laws, as the tribals of Maharashtra testified at a massive public hearing in Jawahar, Thane district, on March 14, 2008. Three widows of the particularly vulnerable Katkari tribe -- Laxmi Dagdu Mukne, Soni Bhika Mukne and Dhavli Mukne of Mokhada taluka, Thane district -- testified that they were living under a tree and begging because they did not have the relevant documents.

Collective clout is marshalled to combat cruelty and atrocities against single women. Here again the strategy is to first try and resolve it at the village level. Sangathan members approach the mukhiya and urge him to take responsibility for the concerned woman's safety. The clear message is that the woman is not alone. She has her sangathan sisters behind her.

This tactic is also used to counter sexual harassment. Says Savitri Bai of Jharol: "As single women we are considered an easy target. Drunken or loutish men knock on our doors at night. Even the police can harass a single woman. But now that the sangathan women have banded together, and they have demonstrated that they know how to file FIRs and will not be intimidated, I feel less insecure."

A noteworthy case study is that of Choklibai of Girwa tehsil, Udaipur district. She was so savagely beaten by her brothers-in-law over a land dispute that in her distraught state she jumped into a well. Fortunately, someone informed the sangathan members who rescued her. Some time later she was again beaten and almost raped. This time a case was registered against the brothers-in-law but they were released on bail after four days. The sangathan members then insisted that the panchayat take up the case. Although they were not allowed to be present at the meeting they lobbied actively with all the women of the village, urging them to support Choklibai.

The decision at the meeting went in Choklibai's favour. Even when a brother-in-law tried to insist she must live with them the village women were firm that it was Choklibai's right to decide. An out-of-court settlement was arrived at whereby the land was equally divided and registered. The offenders were ordered to pay Rs 10,000 towards Choklibai's medical treatment and court expenses.

The most heartening spin-off of the movement has been the self-confidence it has given these single women: they now understand the need to assert their rights as equals.

After the Bassi convention many widows went back home, opened their trunks and began wearing their colourful sarees. At gatherings they adorn each other's hands with henna or put on bindis or drape the chunari on the shoulders of a mother during her son's nuptials. It is their gesture to demonstrate that life is not over just because one relationship has ended.

"Aadmi mar gaya, mein thodi na mari," (My husband died but I am still very much alive). "Hum adhure toh nahi (We are not incomplete without a partner), the women emphasised at one of the meetings I attended.

(Freny Manecksha is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008