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India: The farmer's unhappy wives

Indian widows struggle mightily after a rash of farmer suicides.

But her husband made all the decisions about the family’s farm and income. Ujwala never knew how much land her husband owned, how much he earned or how much he owed. She never had her own cash.

Three years into the marriage, Ujwala’s husband drank a chemical pesticide, killing himself.

The Vidarbha region has been hardest hit by farmer suicides. Many of the farmers there grow cotton, which is particularly vulnerable to pests, has high costs of production and is subject to the volatility of the international market. To cover production costs and obtain cash before the harvest, farmers take out loans from banks or moneylenders, who often charge exorbitant interest rates.

A cotton farmer in Ghodghwan village in Amravati, Rajendra Panja Kadu, told GlobalPost he had to borrow from moneylenders to pay for his cottonseeds and living expenses because the bank would not give him a new loan. The moneylender lent him 10,000 rupees a year and charged him 5 percent interest a month, or 60 percent a year.

When Ujwala’s husband killed himself, she was left with nothing. The land her husband owned went to his brother. According to Hindu marriage law, the land should have been divided between his relatives, and Ujwala should have been entitled to a share of it, says independent journalist and columnist Kalpana Sharma who covers developmental issues and gender. However, male relatives often deceive poor rural women and deny them their share of the land, she says.

“A lot of these women don’t even know the law and their rights,” Sharma says. “They are left without anything quite often.”

Ujwala now works as a laborer on other people’s fields. She earns 50 rupees a day working two shifts. On such meager earnings, she cannot afford to raise her daughter and must have her live at her parents’ home.

Furthermore, Ujwala has to live with her in-laws, whom she says she dislikes. In many parts of India, once a woman marries into a family, she becomes part of that family forever, Sharma says. The woman’s parents might view her as a burden and not want to take her back, or they might be superstitious and see widowhood as bringing bad luck to the family.

Women in rural areas often have few options or rights, Sharma says, “and when [a woman] becomes a widow, she has even less choices before her.”

Ujwala says that while she finds it painful to only see her daughter once a month, she knows her daughter will get a better education by attending the government school near her parents’ home. Asked what her dream is for her daughter, Ujwala’s face breaks out into a big smile, and she says in English: “Doctor.”