65 year-old Basi behen* lives in a small village in the Narmada district of west Indian state of Gujarat. Married at 15, for close to five decades, she tilled a small plot of land alongside her husband, earning just about enough income to raise a family of four.
Fifteen years ago, Basi behen lost her husband, and soon after, her son. Life became harder. To ensure she was not able to stake a claim to the land that was rightfully hers, her brother-in-law accused her of being a witch. For many women like Basi behen, elderly and without any form of social security, being branded a witch meant being ostracized by the community and left all alone.
But in 2015, this changed when Basi behen met a paralegal worker from a local community based women‘s group, Usha behen. She became aware of her rights to the land and applied for a varsai, or an inheritance document. The process for varsai (inheritance) includes drawing up a family tree, one where women (daughters and widows)are also included. It is then certified by village leaders and if no one objects, in 90 days, the varsai is considered legal. Three and a half months after submitting an application, Basi behen was the proud owner of a land deed in her name.
It is a powerful testimony to the rights of women in a country where millions of women are absent from inheritance documents or are forced to give up these rights later. In India it is estimated that only 12.7% of land holdings are in the names of women, even as 77% women rely on agriculture as their primary source of income.**
Local champions like Usha behen are trained and guided by the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), a network of non-government and community based organizations (CBOs) that aims to collectively provide rural women greater ownership over agricultural land in India. Between 2014 and 2015, with UNDP support, WGWLO set up 15 Swa Bhoomi (My Land) Centres in 12 districts in Gujarat. These hubs have provided greater awareness to rural women on their rights as land owners, and importantly, provided access to productive resources that can support women farmers.
The Centres run by CBOs, have reached out to 17,000 women like Basi behen and have helped more than 5,000 women secure land deeds in their name. They have also collaborated with the Government of Gujarat’s initiative to update land records. Recognizing that women farmers drive India’s agriculture, these Centres have helped link 9,000 women farmers to government agriculture and allied schemes that have provided access to drip irrigation facilities; bank loans for crops; electric connections for fields; seed kits and pesticide pumps.
The impact of these initiatives would not have been possible without the commitment and perseverance of women like 30 year old paralegal Usha behen who goes door to door creating awareness about women’s rights, government schemes and entitlements, counselling women and helping fill out volumes of supporting documents. “Today, my father-in-law proudly tells people that if they have land-related issues, they should come to me”, she says.
In addition to supporting government campaigns to update land records, the network also collaborated with the State Institute of Rural Development to train more than 500 elected representatives and revenue officials from 400 villages, on women’s land rights. Training provided to over 800 village revenue officials at local self-government centres aimed at ensuring that local governance institutions at all levels, recognize women as the drivers of the rural economy.
It’s a movement that is spreading amongst women in the area. As women gain more awareness and rights, they are taking others with them. Thirty-five year old Pushpa, a mother of two children was thrown out of her house by her in-laws when her husband died. Slowly, but steadily, supported by the land rights centre in her village and with counselling, Pushpa’s name was included in the inheritance document in 2015. She made sure her sister-in-law, also a widow, (pictured here along with her mother-in-law) was included. Today, she says, “I am no longer worried about my children’s future, because I am listed as a land owner, no one can take that away from me.”
* Behen is a hindi word meaning sister ** Data on women land holdings is from the Agriculture Census (2010-11) which states that the percentage share of female operational holders has increased from 11.70 in 2005-06 to 12.78 in 2010-11 (both individual and jointly owned). Data on women in agric3ulture is from the Statistical Profile on Women; Ministry of Labour and Employment 2012-13.