By Purnima Sah
Beed, Maharashtra, Sep 2 (IANS/ 101Reporters) The ordeal of single women in rural India does not stop with just one problem. Once her husband dies, a woman is often branded a witch, harbinger of bad luck, and husband killer. She is deprived of shelter, food, livelihood, medical care and even the right to live. Ostracised for being a widow or single mother or woman abandoned by her husband, she is kept out of social gatherings.
Swati Biru Shimple (26) was married off a decade ago to a much older alcoholic. Within three years, she became a mother of two. She faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws.
Her worst days began when her husband killed himself in a drunken fit when she was only 19. Her in-laws then abandoned her and the two toddlers. They also withheld her husband's death certificate, voter ID and other documents.
Her parents did not want her back, since she was already married off. However, they did help her find accommodation -- a hut, to be precise -- close to her marital home.
"I have been living here since then, with my children. In the absence of government documents, I was not able to admit my children to school," Shimple laments. It was with the help of Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, a non-profit based in Kaij, that her children could enrol in school. Shimple also got a job in a medical store, where she earns Rs 4,000 a month.
But Shimple's experience is not an exception. 101Reporters visited multiple villages in Kaij taluka of Beed district in Maharashtra and spoke to more than 30 such women from Kanadi, Lahuri, Kumbephal, Dhakephal, Samtanagar, Dharur and Majalgaon villages, who have faced the heat following the death of their husbands.
When Aazima Sheikh (name changed) lost her husband two years ago, her father-in-law, who also happens to be her maternal uncle, raped her. The 24-year-old not only faced ostracisation but was also blamed by her parents, siblings, in-laws and relatives for her husband's death.
She was sexually violated and molested several times by her brother-in-law and father-in-law. They beat her and refuse to hand back her ration card, making access to basic necessities difficult. "I have started stitching clothes to make a living," she tells 101Reporters. She now lives with her husband's grandmother, who monitors all her activities.
Swati Lahukasbe got married at 16 to an alcoholic in Motegaon village of Latur. Her husband, who used to physically abuse her, died in a road accident this March.
"My in-laws threw me and my son out but kept my daughter with them. They snatched all my belongings and documents. Instead, I was saddled with a debt of Rs 1.30 lakh, which my husband had taken from sugarcane contractors to feed his alcohol addiction."
She now works as a domestic help in Kaij to repay the debt.
Suman Amolpowar had no idea that she was marrying a blood cancer patient at 16. He would suffer from frequent bouts of illness, for which she was blamed.
Her husband died within five years of marriage, leaving her with two sons to raise, and without any financial security. Her in-laws withheld all the documents, making it difficult for any access to help. She now works as a daily wage labourer and stitches clothes for a living.
Urmila Rajebai Chalak lost her farmer husband to COVID-19 nine months ago. After his death, Chalak realised that the house they were living in had never been in her husband's name. "My in-laws abuse us every day and want us to leave. We will become homeless any day," she says.
When 101Reporters approached the in-laws of these unfortunate women, they justified the ill-treatment on the grounds that daughters-in-law could never claim to be part of the husband's family.
"The relationship can only exist as long as the son is alive," a mother-in-law remarks, on condition of anonymity.
Protection officers feel helpless
101Reporters spoke to four taluka protection officers from the Women and Child Development Department, Beed. "Women fear that lodging complaints against in-laws will further narrow their chances of retrieving the documents. Hence, the ratio of women reporting domestic violence (by in-laws) to those facing violence is just 2:10 in our district, and they only come out when the violence is extreme," say the protection officers, on condition of anonymity.
To make matters worse, police refuse to register FIRs when women report domestic violence. "Instead, they send the victim to our counselling centre. After counselling, if she still decides to register a case against the family, we prepare the case study and submit the report in court. In most cases, the in-laws never turn up for the court hearing," explains an officer.
Since most women do not have the necessary documents in place, accessing widow pensions and other schemes becomes a cumbersome task. The legal process, too, is very exhausting.
"In our personal capacity, we have organised awareness programmes on domestic violence, women's rights, and government schemes to educate women in distress. But we do not receive funds to create banners, posters or even for transport for outreach programmes," an officer complains.
Even otherwise, taluka protection officers feel theirs is the most neglected department. "We used to have a separate office; but in April, we were moved to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) department's office. The ICDS team comprises Anganwadi workers, helpers, supervisors, child development project officers and district programme officers. Since then, the objective of our department has been lost. We are working for the ICDS team now," the officer laments.
A 2015-March 2022 report by the Beed District Protection Officer, Department of Women and Child Development, shows that protection officers have registered 670 cases of domestic violence from 11 talukas of Beed.
Of the 620 registered in the court, 579 were heard. In 16 cases, women were issued protection orders, while child custody was granted in 14 others and compensation in 12. A residence order was issued in 20 cases. In 42 cases, financial assistance was given.
Uphill task of accessing justice
Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra has helped 20,000 women to get their names registered in property documents involving land and house. Of these, 40 are single women. It was successful in getting 500 single women registered for various government schemes and identification of documents.
"It took us almost 10 years to achieve this," field coordinator Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat tells 101Reporters.
Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an initiative of CORO, an NGO, has been working with 19,000 women from 350 villages in Beed, Latur, Osmanabad and Nanded districts. Of them, 60 per cent are single. "We have managed to secure property rights of nearly 170 single women over the past seven years," claims Ram Shelke, the Single Women Campaign coordinator at CORO India.
"When we identified them in 2014, none of them had any documents to their name. Neither were they aware of government schemes," he adds.
Social activists and NGOs now emphasise the need to register marriages, so that women have a document to claim property rights.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)