ALIPUR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the age of 24, Joshna Wandile and her two children were thrown out of the house she shared with her in-laws after her farmer husband hanged himself. He left a pile of debts after years of drought laid waste to his land.
Wandile is not alone. More than 300,000 farmers have killed themselves in India over the last two decades, leaving their widows battling with the state, moneylenders, in-laws and their communities.
While widows in rural India are often ostracised and abused, farmer widows have it particularly tough, activists said ahead of International Widows’ Day on Thursday.
“I had nothing when my husband died - he sold everything in the house, even the cooking vessels, to pay the creditors,” said Wandile who lives in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, among the worst affected by farmers’ suicides.
“I couldn’t even feel sad. I could only think: where will we live? How will I earn enough money? How will I keep us safe?” said Wandile, who was married at 17.
Maharashtra, which is struggling with its worst drought in four decades, accounted for more than half the 5,650 farmer suicides in India in 2014, according to official data. Some estimate last year’s toll exceeded 3,000.
“Bankruptcy or indebtedness” was the most common reason cited. Most were small farmers, with holdings of under two hectares.
There is little information on the families left behind who struggle to claim their right to the land they till and the house they live in, while battling archaic stigmas that dog their every step.
Wandile wasn’t given a share of the 1.8-hectare plot she and her husband worked on because the title deeds were in the names of his parents.
Her in-laws also refused to transfer the public distribution card to her name, denying her subsidised staples such as rice, wheat and cooking oil.
With more than 46 million widows, India has the highest number of widows in the world, according to the Loomba Foundation which fights for their rights.
While China and India account for more than a third of all widows globally, India is “of much greater concern” as education levels are lower and extreme poverty widespread, the foundation said in a report last year.
Widows in India are highly stigmatised, particularly in rural areas, where they are regarded as unlucky. Many are subjected to abuse, kicked out of their homes, denied food, and blamed for their husbands’ deaths.
Those who continue farming may have difficulty hiring and managing male labourers and may be harassed and cheated by traders and other farmers.
“The farmers’ suicides get so much attention, but for the widows it’s a living death every day,” said Lata Bandgar, a community organiser with Paryay, a charity helping widows in Maharashtra.
“She has nothing, she can do nothing, and she is treated as little more than a slave by even her own family.”
Poverty and debts also increase the risks of widows being trafficked or duped into prostitution, activists say. With child marriage common in villages, some girls are even widowed as children, leaving them particularly vulnerable.
When a farmer dies, a police case is filed to determine the cause of death. If it is ruled a suicide due to the farm crisis or indebtedness, the widow or the family gets 100,000 rupees ($1,500).
But the compensation can be denied, as in Wandile’s case, if ownership of the land is disputed or if the death is not judged to be linked to indebtedness or the farm crisis.
After receiving the money, a widow often has to fend off claims from her husband’s family and creditors. Widows forced to repay loans can be caught in a vicious cycle of debt bondage.
“We hear the saddest, most incredible stories when it comes to land and property: parents turning against children, children turning against parents,” said Saumya Roy at the Vandana Foundation which helps widows in Vidarbha.
“The widows are the most vulnerable, as their position in the family, the community is so tenuous.”
Of the 700 widows the foundation has helped, about a third said the land deeds were not in their husbands’ names, while a third were repaying their husbands’ loans, Roy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The drought in Maharashtra, India’s largest cotton-growing state, has compounded an underlying agrarian crisis fuelled by a fall in global commodity prices.
Many farmers have been forced to borrow at high interest rates from private lenders after defaulting on bank loans.
The acute vulnerability of farmers’ widows is expected to be highlighted in India’s new national policy for women. The draft, unveiled last month, said the government would design special packages for them including alternative livelihood options.
Help has also come from other quarters. Actors Nana Patekar and Makarand Anaspure have set up a charity to help farmers and widows in Maharashtra, while Habitat for Humanity has built about 60 homes for widows without land deeds in the state’s Marathwada region.
Still, almost 500 women farmers killed themselves in 2014, most of them probably widows crushed by debt, activists say.
Wandile, the widow forced from her husband’s home, moved in with her mother for two years before being asked to leave her home too. Hearing that her in-laws were about to sell the land, she filed a case against them with the help of a charity.
She was eventually given 100,000 rupees as her husband’s share from the sale and now lives in a two-room home she built with a microfinance loan in Alipur village.
“I want to educate my children, get my daughter married,” said Wandile, who still hesitates to linger outside for fear of taunts and harassment.
“I also want to help other widows, because the world is cruel to us: no one respects a woman whose husband has died.”
($1 = 66.75 rupees)