By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women in parts of conflict-hit central and eastern India are more vulnerable to violence and eviction from their land because a decades-long insurgency has made it harder for them to claim equal land rights, according to a new study.
Thousands of people, mostly men, have been killed or gone missing in the insurgency since the late 1960s led by rebels known as Naxals, who claim they are fighting for the rights of poor farmers and landless indigenous people. That has left women to tend to families with few resources, including land.
In the 10 villages surveyed by land rights advocacy group Landesa in eastern Jharkhand state, only 4 percent of housing plots and 3 percent of agricultural plots were owned solely or jointly by women. In contrast, 59 percent of housing plots and two-thirds of agricultural plots were owned by men.
"Women face enormous problems when the death or disappearance of their fathers or husbands leaves them without access to land," said Naveen Kumar, head of research at Landesa.
"Their vulnerability comes from patriarchal norms and stalled development programs because of the conflict," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jharkhand is among the poorest states in India, where prevailing laws and tribal customs do not favor women owning land. When men die or disappear, their land and property are often claimed by male relatives, leaving their wives and daughters homeless and dependent on others, Kumar said.
Women who make claims to land are often subject to violence, with families even hiring militants to evict them, according to Landesa.
Across India, only 13 percent of farmland is owned by women, despite laws granting equal rights in most states. The figure is lower for lower-caste Dalit and indigenous women who are single.
Single women in rural areas bear the brunt of entrenched customs and superstitions, including a bias against girls from birth, limited education and early marriage.
In Jharkhand, single women who own land may be branded "witches" and ostracized by the community. More than a third of the single women surveyed by Landesa said they had received threats of eviction.
"Single women are in a considerably more vulnerable position. They do all the work on the land, yet they are not part of the decision making and have no claim on the land," Kumar said.
"Their communities fear that if land is given to women, it may be lost, so they have no equal inheritance rights," he said.
Earlier this year, the Jharkhand government approved amendments to two laws to enable the acquisition of tribal land for commercial use, including for roads and mines.
Environmentalists have criticized the move, saying more checks and balances are needed to prevent the misuse of land in the resource-rich state where tensions run high between poor farmers and industrial developers.
In addition, a change in long-held patriarchal traditions is also needed to protect the rights of women, Kumar said.
"When we asked the women whether daughters should receive a share of parental land, only 20 percent said yes," Kumar said.
"For them, land means men. They don't even see themselves as entitled to land. This needs to change," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)