Seema Kulkarni

Struggles of the Single and Widowed Women in Sangli District

My association with the women’s movement in Maharashtra has largely been as a part-time activist and continues to be so even today. Straddling the worlds of both the NGO and the women’s movement has been a rather daunting task, which is also one of the major challenges before the women’s movement. After graduating from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 1989, I started working with the rural campus of TISS, in the rural areas of south-east Maharashtra, considered as one of the most backward and drought prone areas of the state. I was working, especially, with the dalit community on the question of land and women’s empowerment. Two years of work in this area was a significant learning process for a person brought up in an urban, privileged caste and class context. Caste discrimination and women’s exploitation were the two questions that struck me and also made me realise that unless the smaller innovative experiments are linked to broader struggles, change may not be possible. These were also the years when I was introduced to some of the struggles, in different parts of Maharashtra, centred on land, water and violence against women. Significant among them were Mukti Sangharsh Movement (liberation struggle) working, among other things, on equitable distribution of water while its women’s front, Stree Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal (SMS – women’s liberation struggle), was working specifically on women’s issues in south Maharashtra. These were some of the few movements that worked with a broader understanding of the interrelationship between caste, class and patriarchy and thereby sought solutions that addressed this complex web. It inspired me and I thus decided to explore possibilities of working with the women’s front of this movement.

Thus, from 1991, I got closely involved with the activities of Stree Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal which, at that time, had leading activists like Indutai Patankar, a freedom fighter and now an octogenarian, Gail Omvedt, a sociologist and Nagmani Rao, currently teaching at a Social work college and several other rural women fighting against violence and for survival and livelihoods.

One of the major issues that were taken up by the Stree Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal, officially formed in 1985, was the single, deserted and widowed women. Single, cast-away women or parityakta striya are different terms used interchangeably for women who are either thrown out of their marital homes or, in some cases, have chosen to step out themselves.

A survey done in the mid-eighties, revealed some astonishing facts in terms of the numbers and the plights of the parityakta women. Most of these women were from the dominant Maratha community and were staying in their maternal homes under much duress. Some were fighting cases of maintenance; others were struggling to find shelter for themselves and their children. Being single also meant protecting themselves from men of their own households as well as outside. The plight of the parityakta women convinced the SMS to organize them for change. What began as a survey from 1983 later culminated into a conference at Vita in September 1988. Thousands of single women of southern Maharashtra deserted by their husbands, gathered at Vita and resolved to struggle for social honour, access to resources, sustainable agriculture and above all a home for themselves and their children. The struggle did not end with the dharna and was, in fact, strongly supported by a series of shibirs on legal rights, women’s rights, village initiatives etc.,

The Vita conference marked the beginning of a long struggle, which organized several rallies, meetings, morchas and sit-ins to see through the fulfilling of these demands. In 1989, about 300 women marched to the Collectors office and announced an indefinite sit-in if the demands were not met. Of particular significance was the demand for housing plots. The district level officials approved the demand for independent ration cards and almost all the participating women got ration cards issued in their names. The other major victory for the movement came in 1989, when the District Collector of Sangli issued an order allocating 2000 sq ft of plots to each of the 23 deserted women from the village of Bahe, in Walwa taluka.

My involvement in the single women’s movement started in 1991 with the Bahe struggle.

Two gunthas of land: The Bahe struggle

One of the first victories of the movement was seen in the Bahe village of Walwa taluka where 23 women were granted land titles to 2 gunthas of land in the neighbouring Hubalwadi village as part of the gaothan extension programme. By 1992, all of these plots were legally made in the name of women through payment of nominal charges by the women. But very soon we realized that the land allotted was already encroached by local farmers, who immediately filed a writ petition in the Mumbai High Court and got a stay order on the allocation. From then on, a long and protracted struggle took place.

This land was acquired by the government in the mid-seventies to rehabilitate the flood affected people. But, in fact, it was never used for this purpose and therefore continued to be with the original owners of the land, who continued cultivating on it. Neither did the government bother to remove the encroachment nor did the encroachers see the need to vacate. This continued until 1992 when the land was finally allotted to the women and they came to take its legal possession. Several andolans were launched by the women with support from various women’s groups in Maharashtra. One of the most significant andolans is the Bhumi Kanya Andolan (daughter of the earth struggle) where women from different parts of Maharashtra came to extend their support and courted arrest. All along women and the SMS were given to believe that the government is fighting the case on their behalf. However,  it was clear, soon enough, that they had no intentions in pursuing this seriously. SMS then went ahead and filed a petition against the order to lay its rightful claim on the land, which they legally owned. The case was filed in 1998 but before that, several andolans[i] were staged in the village and against the government.

It was finally on 3 February 2003, in a landmark judgment passed by the Mumbai High Court, that a writ petition filed by the encroachers on the land was dismissed. The 23 women finally won the case that was fought by Advocate Mihir Desai of India Centre for Human Rights and the Law.

On 13 September, 2003, parityakta women in Bahe village set foot on, what was always, their rightfully owned land after a long drawn struggle of 13 years. An appropriately named programme, called the Kabja Samarambh, was organized by the local branch of Stree Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal.

Subsequently, new experiments in alternative housing and livelihood support have been going on in Bahe village with the support of Society for Promoting Participative Eco-system Management (SOPPECOM) of which I am a part. The housing plots are, thus, also providing ground to meet partial livelihood support for the women. After the construction of their shelter, made from renewable material like small dimension timber and bamboo thereby replacing steel and cement, the remaining area is used to store roof water and cultivate vegetables, fodder and fruits for partial livelihood and nutritional security. Access to land therefore becomes meaningful through this value addition. The Bahe experiment, thus, achieves significance from the point of view of both the struggle for land rights and the possibilities that such rights can lead to, in terms of livelihoods of women, especially the most vulnerable ones.

The struggle, of course, goes on for other villages which even after 20 years are still fighting for their rights. How far the demand gets an audience largely depends on the strength of the movements working on class, caste, tribe, ethnicity and gender issues in the state and their readiness to make alliances with each other to establish rights over resources.

Apart from south Maharashtra other organizations were also working on this in other parts of the state, prominent among these were Dhule and Ahmednagar districts. The movement was at its peak until the late nineties, but slowly began to wane. In the last few years, there have been some efforts to revitalize this movement under the banner of Ektya Vanchit Mahila Andolan. A few shibirs and meetings were held and some sort of a loose platform does exist at the state-level, which hopes to pursue some of the demands at the state level.

Maharashtra is also one of the few states that has a broader coalition of women’s groups at the state level called the Stree Mukti Andolan Sampark Samiti (women’s liberation movement co-ordination committee). I am a part of this coalition which is currently working on drafting alternatives to the women’s policy drafted by the state.

Changing character of the movement

Challenges come by way of resources and people of course, but also by way of changing contexts with which most movements have to grapple with. After the peak period of the movement which lasted until the late 1990’s, we are witnessing various changes in its nature. In the post-nineties, autonomous women’s groups largely engaged in institution building, leading to the rise in numerous women’s studies centres, NGOs and legal counselling centres. What we witness today is a web of sectoral networks that often are not able to talk to each other and more importantly have lost sight of the broader questions of patriarchy located in the class and caste context.

One of the most contentious issues in the women’s movement, in my mind, is the unresolved question of the relationship between NGOs and non-funded mass movements. While most autonomous women’s groups gradually made a transition to NGOs, women’s fronts of the political parties gave the movement its mass character. The boundaries between funded NGOs and women’s mass movements are becoming fuzzier by the day thereby leaving the question of the political nature of the women’s question largely unanswered.

On the positive note, these various networks and alternative voices have sharpened the articulations of the diverse kinds of feminisms. Dalit feminism is a significant voice among them and so are the articulations of Muslim women, the linkages of resources and women and women’s presence in the political sphere. Although it is not the scope of this small piece to assess the changing nature of the movement, it might be worthwhile to locate the changes in the liberalizing and globalizing era of the post-nineties.

[i] Bhumikanya (daughter of the earth) andolan, Kabja (possession) andolan and similar such protest were organised to underscore the apathy of the government to the most vulnerable sections of the society.