The Unwanted Insider the Widow

Dr. Ginny Shrivastav 

The Unwanted lnsider"—the Widow, is a family member who is perceived to be inauspicious, a burden, sexually dangerous. Her access to family resources, both physical and emotional, is all too often cut off at the time of her husband's death.

  • Her brothers-in-law usually want her to leave, so they can get the land and property share that is/was the share of their deceased brother, and so now customarily or legally the right of their widowed sister-in-law and her children.

  • Her parents-in-law are usually dependent on their sons for their future in old age, and so whatever position their sons take, is usually shared by them too. 

  • Her parents thought that they had fulfilled all responsibility when they married their daughter and sent her to her in-laws for the rest of her life. 

  • Her brothers are often married, and they with their wives have plans for their family which do not include bringing a widowed sister-in-law into their home. 

  • Even a son, if married, may face problems of sharing his family resources with his mother, as relations in the family are often strained as both mother and wife compete for the affection of the male head of the household. 

  • Her daughter, herself dependent on her husband, is seldom in a position to offer to take care of her widowed mother. 

And it is not a small problem! The number of widows in India is extremely large—at the time of the 1991 census, it was 8% of all females in India, of all ages—a number over 3 crore 30 lakhs (or 33 million). The corresponding figure for males is 2.4% of the "Ever­Married" persons, 14.8% of females ever married are widows, and 5.4% of males ever married are widowers. 50% of all widows are less than 50 years of age. 

It is women's problem. In the age group of over 60 years, 64% of females are widows, while only 6% of males are widowers. This high gender gap primarily reflects a high incidence of remarriage among widowers. One reason for the persistent neglect of widowhood as a social problem is that widowhood is to a large extent a woman's problem.

In spite of the numbers, relatively little is known about the living conditions of widows. Their marginalization has made them invisible, even to the women's movement! And yet the factors of poverty, unemployment, lack of access to means of production, social ostracization, illiteracy, superstition are factors influencing the lives of widows. These factors often threaten their very survival.

In this paper, the access to resources within the families of which the widows is a member as daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, mother will be discussed.

The study of Widows in Rural India by Marty Chen 1994, showed that 62% of the widows were living in households headed by themselves. 26% were living in households headed by a son. The myth that "the family takes care of its own" or that the family takes care of family members in times of vulnerability seems not to be true in the case of widows. In addition, while 75% of the widows in her sample lived in their husband's village at the time of his death, and while 88% of these women remained in their deceased husband's village after his death, only 3% of the widows lived with their parents. Access of widows to emotional and physical resources of the family is a real problem. 

The resources of the family that will be discussed are: 

  • Property resources

  • Child Custody as resource 

  • Maintenance money for food, clothing, medicine etc. 

  • Emotional resources


a)  Land

There is a lot of variation in relation to the laws affecting the widow's legal right over land and property that was the husband's. A comprehensive treatment of the inheritance rights of widows would have to distinguish: (a) between statutory law, customary law, and actual practice, (b) between ancestral and self­acquired property. (c) between inheritance rights of widowed women as daughters and as widows; and (d) between land and other property. 

What seems clear is that most groups in India follow customary law rather than statutory law, and that in practice, widows have very little direct benefit from the property that was her husband's. 

A study by Marty Chen of low income widows in rural areas of 7 states (West Bengal, Bihar, U.P, Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) and Varsha Bhagat Ganguly's study in Gujarat, find that while widows may have "use rights'over a share of the husband's land, or even father's land, in fact, those rights are often violated in practice.

(i)   In-Laws Land Grab

When a widow tries to manage the land on her own, without adult sons, her brothers-in-law often insist on sharecropping or managing her land themselves, or simply, attempt to deprive her of her rightful share of the land (often legitimizing their claim by arguing that they spent money on her husband's death ceremony or on her children's maintenance). In their attempt to gain control of her land, the brothers-in-law of a widow may go so far as forcing her to leave the village, or even — in extreme cases — arranging her murder. 

Once her sons, if any, grow up a widow may have to forfeit her use rights to her husband's land in exchange for a right to maintenance by one or more of her sons. Even maintenance rights, however, are often uncertain. 

(ii)   The Role of Superstitions

 In many parts of India, particularly in tribal communities, widows are sometimes killed as Witches ("dakin"). The underlying motivation appears to be economic, the accusers and murderers are often male relatives (brothers-in-law or step-sons) who want control over her land. 

(iii) Cumbersome Legal Formalities

All researchers who have written on land rights of widows remark that very few widows have land in their own name, and of the few who do, they remain passive owners. 

In a paper by Ramesh and Shobha Nandwana on "Land Rights of Widows" they point out that land record system and field realities and procedures prevent widows from exercising their land rights. They write in the context of Rajasthan. They say that:1.   Under the joint family system, jointly owned land remains in the name of the family head.

2.   The onus of responsibility for making changes in the land records lies with the successor, and the procedures for making changes in the land records are lengthy and cumbersome. Records and Rights Register are maintained by Tehsildar and Patwals. Mutations or changes in land tenancy (the state is the owner of land, jamabandi) documents update the Register and so on.

3.   There are restrictive time bars beyond which changes cannot be made — some of these time bars occur while widows are confined to home for periods of one year after the death of the husband. 

4.   Prevailing attitudes are that males or sons are the ones who should exercise land rights and women are socialized or conditioned to remain passive and not fight for their rights. 

5.   The local land revenue officials do not follow the stipulated procedures regarding land records. Because of the local and political patronage they enjoy, local politicians can get illegal transfers and entries made in the land records. Officials are reluctant to go against the local vested interests and to hear genuine grievances, particularly from a woman who is a widow. 

(iv) Widow Remarriage 

Another reason why widows do not get to claim their property rights is that the customs around remarriage are definitely linked to the land and property issue, and are designed to prevent widows from owning property. 

The classical Brahminical view of widowhood is that the widow is physically alive but socially dead. They are expected to die before the husband, or along with him (by the custom of sati), and if they live after his death, then they remain in the in-law's house, dependent on them for food and everyday items, and are bound to observe the customs that keep them marginalised socially. The upper caste widows in almost all parts of India are in fact not allowed to own property, even though by law there is no question of the property going out of the family. Except for some special categories of property, they have been given those legal rights. They must not remarry, and so if there is no jewelry, the widow owns no property. 

However, for widows of farming and working or laboring castes and communities, remarriage is allowed, and even encouraged in some places. Here it is found that even today, many communities in what used to be the old "maha Punjab" which includes Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and in Gujarat ( and probably hf other states as well), prefer the form of remarriage of the widow with the deceased husband's younger brother, or her "devar". This keeps the property in the family, and provides for the security of the widow as she has a relationship with a man in the family. 

These "leviratic" marriages (to the husband's brother), are more common in North India than in South India. In a study by Pauling Kolonda in a North Indian village, and referred to in a paper by Uma Chakravarti "Gender, Caste and Labour: The ideological and Marital Structure of Widowhood", we read, "The preferred mate to whom the widow will be assigned is the dead husband's younger brother. If there is no unmarried younger brother, she may be assigned to a married brother with his wife's, the widows and the widow's father's consent. She may be also given to a patrilateral parallel cousin and matrilateral cross cousin have the right to sell her once she has mated with them". 

Here it is clear that while she gives her consent the management and decisions about her remarriage are with the male members of her in-laws family. And in the end, if she can be sold, she herself has become "property"! 

In Punjab and Haryana, both agriculturally rich states, the widow's remarriage to her younger brother-in-law keeps the land and the worker in the family. 

"Naatra" or naatru" is a custom similar to marriage, in which a woman is taken into the home of man and kept as a wife. These liaisons have a lower status than marriage, but are accepted by the community, and institutionalized by ceremonies in front of a peepul tree, or by giving of bangles, or some other traditions. The selection of the partner is usually done by the man and woman themselves, and not by the male in-laws, as is the case in levirate alliances. When a widow enters into a "naatra" relationship, she gives up all rights to land and property of her husband and will be taken care of by the man with whom she lives. 

(v)  Use Rights

As a solution to the problem of maintenance, some communities, while not giving ownership of the land to the widow, allow her to use a portion of the land to earn a subsistence amount of foodgrains or income. 

But even with this, the situation is not straightforward. As she is usually not able to plough the land (for very deeply ingrained customary reasons), so she has to take the help of male members of her in-laws family. This often results in the demand for a share of the crop, as they have helped her in cultivation. Such was the case reported in Varsha Bhagat Ganguly's study in Gujarat. 

In Marty Chen's study, we learn that: 

"Of those widows whose husband owned land, 51% reported that they exercised use rights over a share of their husband's land, and second, of those widows whose father (father or mother, in the case of Kerala) owned land, 13% report that they exercised use rights over a share of their father's (or mother's) land. However, these use rights of widows are often violated in practice". 

(b) Other Property 

Even if a widow has use rights to her husband's property, or a portion thereof, she still needs a pair of bullocks, a plough, in order to work the land. These items usually were owned collectively by the in-laws family, and after the death of her husband, these property items are rarely available for her use. It is part of the overall effort on the part of her brothers-in-laws to create a situation where she herself will leave and the property will be theirs. 

In tribal households, where the pattern of living is as a nuclear family, with a separate house, the widow has the property right of the house in which she and her husband and children have been living. Then, even without agriculture property rights, or use rights, if she can get work even as a labourer, she may stay on in her in-law's village. If she lives in a "long house" where each brother and his family have one big room, opening onto a long common verandah, she does not have ownership rights over that portion of the house where she and her husband and children had been living, then her position is more precarious.

(c)      "Streedhan"

For upper caste widows, the jewelry that was given to them by their parents at the time of marriage is often the only property that is rightfully "their own". Other items given by the relatives and parents of the bride, are usually absorbed into the property of the husband's family, and are never given back. Varsha Bhagat Ganguly reports "In most of the cases, the quantum of property is meager. It is also true that women don't have control over their streedhan. There is no social practice to give her streedhan back". An exception to this general pattern is found in the Garasia tribal community in Southern Rajasthan. In this community, the "streedhan" is made up of animals and jewelery. After the death of the husband, if the widows wants to move back to her parents home, or to take a new man, she takes with her, animals equal to the number she brought at the time of marriage —sometimes, because of reproduction, she takes more animals than she brought with her as a bride! Also, iii the intervening years, if any animals have been sold, the money received from the sale of the animals, or jewelery (or other moveable property) bought with money from the sale of the animals, is also hers. 

Then, wherever the woman goes to live—with brother, parents, son, daughter, another man—she takes her moveable property with her. In a basically rural

economy society, these assets are significant, and it means that she brings not only herself and her labor, but animals, money, jewelery to her new home. The fact that this moveable property accompanies her, increases for her the options of places where she can stay with dignity.

II.   CHILD CUSTODY AS RESOURCE:­Children are also a "Resource"—they become earning family members, often as a social security for widows in old age. And yet, the customs and rights related to the widows custody rights to her children, are often heart wrenching and cruel.

The importance of children, mostly sons but also daughters, to the well-being and security of the widow can be seen from the data of the Marty Chen study of rural widows of West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 

While by far the majority of widows live in households headed by themselves, the responsibility shared by son and daughters is also significant. The "Living Arrangements" data of the Chen study show:

It is clear from this data that having a son or a daughter increases the security of the widow.

For upper caste widows, remarriage is not an issue, and they stay on in their in-laws homes, with their children.

For some middle and lower caste/community widows, remarriage is an option. For those who marty their younger brother-in-law, they continue to stay in the same household, and close to their children. For those who enter into marriage-like relationship, naatra or naatru, they are forced by custom in most cases, to leave behind their children, and any immovable property they may have had. Even in tribal communities, the children are the "property" of the husband's family. 

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