Protecting women’s land rights in the times of a pandemic
Dr. Girija Godbole
Dr.Girija Godbole is currently working at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) at IIT Bombay. Trained in anthropology she has worked in the environment and development sector. Her PhD research sought to understand the impacts of increasing incidence of land sale on a rural society in Pune district. She has been doing voluntary work with a grassroots organisation Jeevan Sanstha, in helping to set up an initiative for rural women and children in villages in Maval tehsil.
Covid-19 induced lockdown has shown us the dark underbelly of our society and government as thousands of migrants are forced to take to roads in scorching heat to reach their villages. As (and if) they reach after that arduous journey not all are fortunate to be allowed to enter their homes due to the fear of carrying the virus with them. This reverse migration may have varied consequences. Lack of remittances, shortage of paid work as well as increased pressure on the already scarce resources like land will aggravate the financial hardships for many rural families.
In families where men have migrated for work, the women left behind may have relatively more say in financial matters as well as more freedom of movement. However as the migrant men are forced to return to their villages the gender relations in families may change for the worse. Furthermore, economic empowerment for women which is the cornerstone of gender equality will suffer a blow under the crumbling of income-generation activities for women and will impact other aspects of women’s agency adversely, particularly within the household. It can impact health-seeking ability, decision making within the household, as well as their ability to protect themselves from domestic violence (Swaminathan and Lahoti, 2020).
Lack of employment, uncertainty of future, fear of losing the role of provider and being perceived to be less masculine may lead to frustration which is frequently vented out as violence against women. Several studies indicate a positive relationship between exposure to extreme events and rates of interpersonal violence (Jeltsen, 2020). A sharp rise in violence and abuse against women and children all across the world has been reported. In India, the National Commission for Women as well as many organisations providing support for victims of domestic abuse have reported an increase in calls for help (The Economic Times, 17/4/2020). Rural women seldom have access to such services. Moreover, violence against women is seen as accepted form of ‘disciplining’ or even sign of love shown by husbands so women themselves may not be willing to report it unless it reaches unbearable limits. In the current situation, violence against women may also escalate due to disputes over use and ownership of family assets such as land which continues to be the foundation for security, shelter, income and livelihoods, especially in rural areas.
Previous epidemics, and post-conflict or post-disaster situations, have shown that women are likely to be further disenfranchised of their housing, land and property rights in the absence of protection. Widows and orphans often lost property to other family members and were left homeless during the AIDS epidemic. Generally during crises, widows face a higher risk of disinheritance (Stanley and Prettitore , 2020).
In our society, ownership of land by women is a contentious issue. Traditionally, a son is perceived to be the ‘rightful’ successor. Amendment in the Hindu Succession Act (which is also applicable to Buddhist, Sikh, Jain) in 2005, brought all agricultural land on a par with other property and made women’s inheritance rights in land legally equal to men’s across the states. However, as we know too well, proactive laws and policies often remain only on paper as the traditional norms and practices continue to hold sway. According to a study carried out by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (Mehta, 2018) women constitute over 42 per cent of the agricultural labour force in India, but own less than two per cent of farmland.
Usually, it is observed that women and girls have access to land and other property through their male relatives. In case their male relatives pass away, tenure security for women and girls may further weaken due to restrictive social norms and lack of legal knowledge. They can be at particular risk of land grabbing by their husband’s relatives (Godbole, 2016). A recent survey conducted by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM, 2018) of 505 women farmers (whose husbands committed suicide due to farm crisis) in 11 districts across Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra, found that 40 per cent of women widowed by farmer suicides between 2012 and 2018, were yet to obtain rights of the farmland they cultivated. With family members who had migrated to cities are returning to their villages, disputes over family land are increasing. Some of the widows are facing pressure from the male relatives of husband to sell the land to raise finances to start a new business (Damle, 2020)
With the uncertain employment situation in cities some of the migrant labour may be forced to remain in villages. As the pandemic may reduce other economic resources such as wages and savings, rights to house, land and property become even more important part of overall household assets. This may in turn increase competition and conflict among the family members and in such situations, women may lack the financial resources, information, or support to enforce their property rights (Stanley and Prettitore, 2020).
During the pandemic period, the government should ensure that particularly in case of inheritance, that female heirs are not forced to sign over their property. It is time that we as a society should break the barriers to women’s access to land and recognise and protect women’s rights while the pandemic places them in a vulnerable situation.
Damle S. (2020) Taale lagtele jine (In Marathi) Loksatta, Chaturang. 6/6/2020 https://www.loksatta.com/chaturang-news/coronavirus-pandemic-lockdown-life-of-farmers-widows-dd70-2180297/ accessed 10/6/2020
Godbole G. (2016). “Selling land is the beginning of the end for us”: Understanding rural people’s perspectives on the impacts of increasing land sale in western Maharashtra, India. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Cambridge, UK.
Jeltsen M. (2020) Home Is Not A Safe Place For Everyone. Huffpost US 12/3/2020. https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/domestic-violence-coronavirus_n_5e6a6ac1c5b6bd8156f3641b?ri18n=true
MAKAM (2018) Social security of women farmers from suicide affected households: A situational analysis. https://drive.google.com/file/d/10j7Q17iW2Eym3hkMc3QUfxE77oRV9NfQ/view accessed 12/6/2020
Mehta A. (2018) Gender gap in land ownership. Business Standard April 17, 2018 http://www.ncaer.org/news_details.php?nID=252
Stanley V and P. Prettitore (2020). How COVID-19 puts women’s housing, land, and property rights at risk. World Bank Blogs. https://blogs.worldbank.org/sustainablecities/how-covid-19-puts-womens-housing-land-and-property-rights-risk accessed 12/6/2020
Swaminathan H. and R. Lahoti (2020). The COVID-19 Lockdown Will Ravage Prospects for India’s Female Workforce. The Wire. https://thewire.in/women/coronavirus-women-economy accessed 10/6/2020.
The Economic Times 17/4/2020 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-witnesses-steep-rise-in-crime-against-women-amid-lockdown-587-complaints-received-ncw/articleshow/75201412.cms