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Widowed by Life, Wronged by Society
by Meera Khanna Bookmark and Share

* According to the 2001 census, 6.9 per cent of women in India are widows
* Every fourth household in India has a widow

The principle of equality and non-discrimination, which reflects the spirit of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), is really the touchstone of the Indian Constitution. But the spirit of the Constitution is ignored, contravened, contradicted and forgotten in the actual implementation of laws and policies when it comes to widows.

Ownership and control of assets is the greatest protection for widows from deprivation and consequent discrimination. But even though the legislation on property has been made more gender friendly with the Acts of 1937, 1956 and 2005, they are far from being equal, fair and non-discriminative.

For instance, with the amendments of 2005, daughters in Hindu joint families will now get a share equal to that of sons, but the position of the widow stays the same. The widow will not inherit any share in the joint family property in her own right but is entitled to an equal share with other Class I heirs only from the separate share of the husband, computed at the time of the notional partition. In effect, the actual share of the widow will go down, as the separate share of the father will be less since the property will now have to be equally divided between father, sons and daughters. The law will now discriminate against a woman, not as a daughter but as a widow.

In any case, daughters very often are persuaded by the family to will away her share so that she can continue her association with the natal home. So when the daughter becomes a widow, her deprivation is only enhanced. These inequalities would remain unless the entire coparcenary system is abolished totally since it has folds within folds of inequalities, which cannot be dealt with in a piecemeal manner.

Section 4(2) of the Hindu Succession Act allows for special State laws to prevail over the Hindu Succession Act to address the issue of fragmentation of agricultural holdings, fixation of ceiling and devolution of tenancy rights in these holdings. Innumerable State laws exist that continue to deny women equal rights of succession in tenancy rights.

A man has full testamentary power over his property including his interest in joint family property as well as his acquired property. The law, in failing to lay down a ceiling on the amount that can be willed away, has emphasized the discrimination against women particularly widows.

Between 1987 and 2003, 2,556 women were killed after being branded as witches. Most of these victims were widows, aged women and vulnerable women closely related to their attackers. In fact, the property right of tribal women have become their death warrant. In many cases the widow who owns land is asked to give up her right by the husband's relatives. When they refuse to do so, the village healer is bribed to brand her as a witch. There is a specific law to address this crime - the Prevention of Witch Practices Act (2001) - but it comes with a package of loopholes and the actual punishment is nominal.

Women have equality of status under the country's Constitution. However, many anomalies remain under different personal laws that govern many minorities in India. They are also subject to the vagaries of interpretation which, given the general gender bias, is likely to discriminate against the women.

Meanwhile women, particularly widows, face discrimination on property matters in the name of cultural and religious freedom, which contravenes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which put the onus on Governments to abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against women.

Even though India ratified CEDAW in 1993, it made a declaration on its reservations on Article 5(a) 9 and 16(i), in conformity with its policy of non-interference in the "personal affairs" of any community without its initiative and consent. What is forgotten is that gender identity is based on the behavior patterns imposed on women and men by culture and religion. In a traditional patriarchal society there is institutionalized domination of women by men. Many of the practices defended in the name of culture that impinge on human rights are gender specific; they preserve patriarchy at the expense of women's rights. In the context of widowhood, laws against forced marriage as child brides (resulting in early widowhood), patriarchal inheritance systems in which daughters inherit less than sons and the widows' right to property are at variance with customary law. Marriage arrangements that allow the husband control over land and finances (leaving the widow with very little knowledge or resources to assert her rights), witch-hunting, restrictive dress, diet and behavior codes compulsory imposed, institutionalize the ostracism and discrimination of widows. The most harmful cultural practice is the stereotyping of widows in a manner that underlines their victimized state. By adhering to the principle of non-interference in cultural norms, the Government fails in its responsibility to uphold the human right to a life of dignity for widows.

Again, the inability of the government to ensure that marriages are registered in the country only goes to reinforce the deprivation faced by widows. Inheritance of property is often denied due to a lack of proof of marriage. An expressed inability should not absolve the Government of its responsibility to prevent discrimination practiced against women and widows.

Inadequate measures on the part of the Government, non implementation of policies, and ineffective programmes invariably affect the poor. Since poverty has a feminine face, women are the most affected, especially the widows among them.

CEDAW emphasizes the vital need to ensure that women are provided social security. Yet only 28 per cent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions and less than 11 per cent actually receive the payments to which they are entitled.

Today, when the crushing burden of debt is forcing many farmers in the country to end their lives - more than 20,000 farmers are estimated to have ended their lives since 1997 - it is there widows who are left to face the consequences. The farmers' widows, already under their husbands' debts, have no clear titled right to the land. There are, besides, children who need to be clothed, fed and educated. These women are financially, emotionally and educationally ill-equipped to cope with all these sudden responsibilities. The Government has been making ex-gratia payments, but such doles will not help. The Government's approach must shift from welfarism to rights. Widows must be given entitlements, so that their debts are waived and their right to the land, recognized.

The multiple forms that violence against widows are known. Yet there is astonishingly very little data available. This is because of the persistence of the myth that widows are being taken care of by their families. Without adequate data, it will be impossible to map the economic, social and political vulnerabilities of widows and ensure that justice is delivered to them.

Widowhood is both a crisis and a problem. In the suddenness and in the sea change it brings in the life of a woman, it is a monumental crisis. As the woman tries to cope with the implications, she is faced with innumerable problems without a support structure of any kind. What's worse, in India there is a cultural non-acceptance of widowhood.

In such a scenario, the widow is triply discriminated against - as a woman, as a widow and as a poor widowed woman. It has been said that poverty wears a woman's face - it probably wears a widow's face.
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