India's Invisible Women: Can Farmers' Widows Navigate India's Agricultural Crisis?

After a farmer’s death, a widow is invisible to the state, the community, and even to her own family.


In November 2018, women farmers from suicide–affected agricultural households came together in Mumbai under the banner of the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM). They demanded an increase in pensions, access to free education and healthcare facilities and services for them and their family members, and official recognition as farmers, which would allow for women–centric agricultural policy to be implemented. 

While the Maharashtra government has recently allowed widows of farmers who have committed suicide to have the land transferred in their name—as their husbands’ relatives often object to the wives taking over—much more needs to be done to address widows’ distress. Of all rural households in India, 10.4% are currently run by widows, who become increasingly vulnerable after their husbands’ deaths. As this reading list shows, violence, sexual harassment, social stigma, gender discrimination, accumulated debt and state apathy are part and parcel of life as a widow in India.   

1) Navigating Life as a Widow

Farmers’ widows are expected to assume complete responsibility for household functioning, including providing for and managing expenditure. Pravin Panditrao Ghunnar and Antra Bhatt Hakhu write that widows have to take up the mantle of the head of the family. Since widows have never had any experience in crop planning, cultivation, and harvesting, the authors write that they would rather sell their land and work as paid labour on other farms to make ends meet. 

They were unable to find alternate means of livelihood as they possessed no other skills. More so, they had limited hours available in the day for working as labourers given their household responsibilities of child-rearing and caring for older family members. The data revealed that the majority of the families earned around 25,000 per annum.

Further, even if the state provides financial assistance, a lack of basic education in managing finances means many women are unaware of how to plan their expenses. 

Most often, the money is used to cover immediate expenses and is not used to generate future returns. The penetration of sustainable opportunities such as microfinancing in Nanded is low, and some women reported a fear of borrowing from unknown sources. One of the survivors said, “I will skip meals, but I will not take a loan from anyone after what has happened in my family.” 

2) The Burden of Repaying Loans is Passed on

After a farmer’s death, Kota Neelima writes that farmers’ widows are thrown into the exact same situation that led to their husbands' suicides. Widows accrues all outstanding loans, most of which they are unaware of. Neelima contends that widows often have to navigate through this debt without any assistance. Other male members of the family are not used to sharing financial information with women. Further, widows do not have the agricultural knowledge required to run a farm, and the additional burden of labour—domestic and otherwise—falls on them. 

Like dependence, the other aspect that the widow becomes aware of in the months after the farmer suicide is the inevitable interaction with the world outside the household that had remained inaccessible to her as a wife. Although mediated initially by the community, the widow who heads the household is disadvantaged because of the absence of past linkages that she can count on. Even her interaction with the state, which could have been supportive, is not only cursory, but also shortlived.

3) There is No Healthcare for Women Farmers

Nitin Jadhav, Bhausaheb Aher and Deepali Sudhindra write that besides coping with drought, crop failures, and various forms of societal discrimination, widows are left to take care of the medical expenses of their families. Assessing the state of public health systems in Maharashtra, the authors note that relief packages and healthcare schemes set up by the government either fail to reach widowed women, and if they do, are inadequate. 

In order to address the healthcare services issues in the 14 suicide-prone districts, two schemes—the “Prerna” project and MPJAY were started. However, according to a survey conducted by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM; Forum for Rights of Women Farmers), among 505 farmer women of 20 blocks from these 14 districts, there are huge gaps in the implementation of these schemes … The women reported the following obstacles in accessing mental health services from the public sector: (i) public sector hospital/government hospital distance from the home/village (29.2%); (ii) lack of help from the front-line workers, ASHAs or ANMs in the village (25.5%); (iii) unavailability of the psychiatrist (mental health specialist) (24%); and (iv) unavailability of medicines (19%).

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