Observations from Punjab, India

‘…the role of social sensitivity of the philanthropic and the social organisations committed to humanitarian values is very crucial’ (Iyer and Manick 2000:90).

Widows in Rural Punjab

After several months of interviews in rural Punjab concerning farmers who committed suicide as a result of the economic crisis in agriculture, the widows appear to be left in the weakest position in society. It all begins with the arranged marriage: the young bride must leave her natal village to live in her husband’s village. She rarely goes to her natal village to visit her own family. She has no friends in her new village, which leaves her completely isolated after her husband’s death. On top of that, often women do not leave the house, as for her to be alone in public is seen as shameful. After marriage, women are expected to be housewives: to do all the household chores, take care of the children and the husband.  In addition, receiving an education higher than the tenth class is seen as shameful, as the woman’s place is in the home. Unmarried girls are not allowed to leave their village to receive higher education or skilled training, which leaves them little choice but to become either a housewife or a labourer.  These ‘social facts’ or cultural expectations leave widows in an impossible predicament.  After her husband has committed suicide, the widow’s fate seems to take one of six turns:

1)      She returns to her natal village, leaving her children behind with her in-laws. This is, if you ask any mother, a heart-wrenching experience.

2)      Her family arranges a new husband for her. She barely had time to grieve, yet now her in-laws will be held accountable for her late husband’s debts, although she receives no rights to the inheritance despite the high price of dowry that her family had paid.

3)      She (often against her will) remarries the brother of deceased, who is left with the debts of the first brother, and often proceeds to commit suicide as well.

4)      She remains with the in-laws (sometimes acting as their slave, doing all the housework: cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding and milking the buffalo etc).

5)      She is left on her own, with the debts and the children to take care of.

6)      She commits suicide.

Emotionally, widows are relentlessly broken. Heartbroken from her husband’s death, the widow sees daily reminders of him in the eyes of their children.  Socially, she must wear the stigma of her husband’s suicide.  Besides the daily struggle to make ends meet, she is burdened by the debts he left her, and receives pressure from the arhtiya or bank to make payments, multiplying the public shame of being indebted, and elevating her financial worries.[1] Sometimes she had been physically abused by her late husband, as he had turned to alcohol and/or drug abuse as an escape from debts, which contributed to the psychosis in which he took his own life.  From this experience, her soul is left as battered and bruised as her body, causing lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Financially, she is often dependent on either in-laws, siblings or the State.  The widow must sell all of her personal property (ie. Jewellery, which are often heirlooms passed on for generations in the family) in order to make loan repayments. If this is impossible or insufficient, she must sometimes resort to becoming a labourer even though this may be a lower caste, where she is paid slave wages and is physically and sexually abused by employers and other labourers.

The widow is often uneducated, illiterate, allowing for little or no political leverage or social power due to her ignorance of her civil rights, or of the many official rules and regulations surrounding these rights. Commonly, despite applying several times, she has not received the widow’s pension that she is entitled to from the government. The eligibility criteria are quite inconsequential and restrictive. For example, the widow must not have more than two acres of land in her title, her age must be under thirty-five, but there is no clause considering the amount of her debts, or if she is incapable of working after age thirty-five. She will only receive pensions for two dependents (whereby boys are favoured), despite the fact that most rural owmen have more children to support. The result is that her children must stop attending school and start earning.  Apparently, politics play a role, since it depends on her voting behaviour or caste whether the sarpanch will favour her and arrange her pensions or not.

Contrary to the assumptions often made by the men in her surroundings, the widows I spoke with would prefer to be independent, as they do not like to rely on others. Like any mother, they want to give her children a good future, for example, by giving them an education.  To me, these wishes do not seem unreasonable, yet to the widows I spoke with, they often seem like far-fetched and unattainable dreams.

[1] ‘The constant pressures by lending agencies to repay the loan emerged as an important precipitant social factor for committing suicide by the deceased. The pressures were so intense, that apart from the suicide victims, the family members also felt humiliated’ (Iyer and Manick 2000: 43).


Agarwal, Bina

1998        Widows versus daughters or widows as daughters? Propety, land, and economic security in rural India. Modern Asian studies vol:32 iss:1.

Iyer, Gopal and Manick, Mehar Singh

2000        Indebtedness, Impoverishment and Suicides in Rural Punjab. Delhi: Indian Publishers Distributors.

Sehgal, Rashme

2005    Whole Villages up For Sale in Punjab. Chandigarh: The Tribune.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s