‘Forced Breadwinners’ in a patriarchal world: Experiences of widows from agrarian Maharashtra

More than half of India’s population is dependent on the agricultural sector. India holds the second largest agricultural land in the world, 158 hectares, is the second largest fruit producer in the world and sees a gross value added of US$ 274.23 billion each year from agriculture and allied sectors. [1]Yet, the backbone of the agricultural sector, farmers, still live a life of drudgery and in the last 20 years more than 300,000 farmers have ended their lives which in turn has led to an ‘agrarian crisis’. [2],[3]

While policy makers and activists actively advocate for the rights of farmers and a need for protecting them against the vagaries of the monsoon and money lenders, less attention has been given to the situation of families where farmer suicides occur. Often, widows of the deceased farmers are forced to assume the role of bread winners for their entire families and the patriarchal world does not assist them in this new role of theirs. Worse so, these women must live with the stigma of widowhood and face psychological and emotional violence.

A recent study, published in the Economic and Political Weekly[4], analyzed the situation of families where the male breadwinner has committed a suicide owing to the agrarian crisis. The authors presented findings from a qualitative research which was conducted in Nanded, Maharashtra and where more than 50 per cent of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture with soybean and cotton as main crops. Nanded also witnessed the second highest number of farmer suicides in Maharashtra in 2014 and 2015. According to the Nanded district collector’s office, 40 % of families where farmers committed suicides were left out of the government compensation schemes.

The study’s key finding supported the premise that in families where a farmer suicide has happened, the burden of providing for family falls on the shoulders of the farmer’s widow and/or the eldest male child in the family. This ‘new’ burden of providing for the family is in addition to their already instated responsibilities of unpaid care and domestic work which already take a substantial portion of their daily time owing to the lack of adequate infrastructure (toilet facilities, water on premises and transportation).  Nevertheless, the major repercussion of this ‘new’ burden of the providing of the family is that these widowed women who have focused on domestic work throughout their lives suddenly need to do crop planning, seed procurement, cultivation and harvesting. Often these women reported that they were left with no choice but to sell their land for a meagre price and work as paid laborers on other farms. This transition from being land owners to becoming daily wage laborers means that their income drops significantly, and they have even less time to dedicate to unpaid care and domestic work. Amongst the households that were interviewed, an average of 50% drop in income was reported by households where the female widow was forced to provide for the family.

The study also found that women were easy prey for moneylenders from whom the deceased farmers had borrowed money. Not knowing the rates of interest and in many cases not being able to read and write meant that they could be easily exploited by employed and money lenders equally whether they are simply trying to pay off their debt or trying to borrow more money for a daughter’s marriage or for health expenditures. Women’s limited exposure to debt and money management pulls them into a vicious circle of debt and poverty. With limited funds, education expenditures must be rationed and it is often girl children who are left to help the women in the family with unpaid care responsibilities and drop out of school thus affecting education outcomes of the next generation.

Finally, the study also found widowed women of the deceased farmer to be facinga number of social challenges. These women are never given their due as the head of the household and have to live with the reality of working in an environment which is male dominated. Also, they have to bear the social stigma with being a widow and are even excluded from celebration rituals such as weddings. Such downgrades in social status mean their future social alliances would also be affected and widowed women of deceased farmers reported problem is finding a match for their sons and daughters. Widowed women also faced grave problems in registering a famer suicide case and obtaining a compensation amount from the government owing to asymmetric information and corruption.

The need of the hour is a three-pronged policy arena which works towards creating an impetus for agriculture and allied activities that are women friendly, offers cash transfers to widows for supporting health, education and nutrition expenditure and facilitates creation of support groups that work directly with family members and local governments to support families of the deceased farmer.  Alongside such policy efforts a better monitoring and evaluation of current and past schemes is needed to understand what actually works for the target population!





Previous articleQingdao Declaration: What does SCO mean for India?
Next articleThe Dialogue partners with the British Deputy High Commission for the Young Thinkers’ Conference
Pravin Ghunnar is an Assistant Professor for Master Social Work Programme at University of Mumbai and is also pursuing his PhD at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His study area is the Agricultural Transformation and Livelihood Insecurities among women and marginal farmers in Maharashtra: a Gendered and Intersectional Perspective. Antra Bhatt is a Statistics Specialist in the Research and Data Section of UN Women. Prior to her current affiliation, Antra has worked at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations on a variety of development policy related issues. She holds a Masters in Public Policy from University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy and a Ph.D. in Economics from University of Rome – ‘ Tor Vergata’. Her current areas of research are economic and social empowerment of women.