Though women in this part of Maharashtra look after both house and farm while their husbands are working in the city, they rarely get property rights. But a new movement has overcome parampara and male insecurities to make 5,000 women joint owners

Afield lush with yellow and orange marigolds, red roses, and pink velvets is a cheery spot of colour amid the green farms in Maharashtra’s Satara district. Shobha More skillfully chops off weeds, inspects the flowers and appears pleased with the progress. More has been supervising cultivation of flowers, peanuts and soyabeans on her one-acre plot in Kari village ever since her husband died a year ago. “Before he passed away, he had put my name on the house and land as co-owner. Now the land is mine, and it helps put food on the table and pay for my son’s education,’’ More says.

More is one of about 5,000 women in 20 villages of Satara district who now own the home they live in. Another 500 are in the process of getting co-ownership of the family farmland as well. That’s significant in a country where around 75% of rural women depend on agriculture for livelihood, yet just 12.78% own land according to the Agriculture census 2011.

The movement to give women property rights was started in Satara nearly two years earlier by an NGO, Dalit Mahila Vikas Mandal (DMVM). The impetus was a 2003 resolution passed by the Maharashtra rural development department called Ghar Doghanche or Home for Two. In effect, it means that the home should belong to both husband and wife. Little was done to ensure it was implemented till DMVM founder and lawyer Varsha Deshpande took up the issue. “We were already working in the community on issues like domestic violence, female foeticide and alcoholism. It struck us then that until women were owners of the home and land that they worked so hard to till, they would continue to be an invisible labour force and victims of violence,’’ she says.

A 2014 study by NGO Landesa — conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh — found that increasingly land is being cultivated by women as men migrate to cities in search of work. Yet they remain the largest group of landless labourers.

The idea that they could own their home was inspiring for women, Deshpande says, but the men were less enthusiastic. “It took us some time to convince men that they should include their wife’s name in the marital home,’’ she says. Male fears and insecurities came up: would the woman sell the property, desert her husband and take in another man?

Sheeta Sawant from Ozarde village says some men feared the women would go astray. Sawant has been instrumental in mobilising women to ask for their ‘hakk’ (right in Marathi). “I was taunted as a loose woman who was instigating women and destroying marriages. Men ordered their wives to stop talking to me. I was ostracised socially but with the help of Varsha tai (Deshpande) mindsets started changing,’’ she says. One year on, all married women in the village have homes in their names. A victim of domestic violence herself, Sawant says that incidents of drunk men beating up wives have come down sharply since the ownership pattern changed.

Thirty-two year-old Vishal Lakde, who works in a wholesale market in Mumbai, is one husband who has changed with the times. “We leave our family here to go work in the city. It is my wife who looks after the land, and takes care of the children. I realised there should be something for her as well. She should feel that she is secure and will not be thrown out,’’ he says. The other men in the village nod in agreement.

Changes in India’s land laws happened in the 1980s. Five states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra and Karnataka — amended their laws between 1986 and 1994 to allow women to inherit agricultural land. Most recently, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act (HSAA), 2005 ruled that Hindu sons and daughters had equal rights to inherit agricultural land across all states, except Jammu & Kashmir.

Studies show that ownership of property acts as a catalyst to empower women to resist violence, and encourages entrepreneurship and financial independence. Yet, ground realities are different. Women hesitate to seek a share in parental property for fear of alienating their parents and siblings. In the marital home, assets are rarely transferred to women. Brutal murders and violence against women who seek property rights make headlines in urban India nearly every week. The Landesa study, which interviewed 1,436 women whose households had access to land, found that only 19% own land with documents that include their names. When researchers looked at how plots are registered, they found that women’s names appeared in only 14% of the title deeds or documents.

Even in Satara villages, men have agreed to share home ownership, but are still reluctant to part with land rights. But women like Shakuntala Jadhav from Bhivadi village are optimistic. “The land is not in my name but I am hopeful that my husband will agree. He works in the city, while I take care of the crops. It is my work that puts food on the table,’’ she says.

Men, however, say that land rights are ruled by ‘parampara’ or tradition. Although supportive of the move to give property rights to women, 74-yearold Sriranga Jadhav of Bhivadi village feels that handing over land to women is inviting trouble.

Deshpande is determined to change these attitudes. She points out that the NGO has succeeded in getting about 500 households to share land ownership with women, and more may follow. “It is a much longer process and ownership of land is very complex in India with fathers, brothers and other family members as stakeholders,’’ she says. But for now, 5,000 women have become the true ardhanginis (or equal half) of their homes.

There has been headway in the battle to share home ownership but men are still reluctant to part with farmland