In India, Janak Anand said NO to forced widow marriage and, yesterday, she won!

Janak and Dipak Anand

Soldiers go to war. Often, they die in war. Some receive medals of bravery. In India, the medal of bravery is the Vir Chakra. It’s called a gallantry award. Those who died “gallantly” are called martyrs. Decades ago, India created a special hell for martyr’s widows. Widows received a gallantry award, but it came with strings attached: “The widow will continue to receive the allowance until her re-marriage or death. The payment of the allowance will, however, continue to a widow who re-marries the late husband’s brother and lives a communal life with the living heir eligible for family pension.” If the widow wanted, or needed, to continue to receive the award and if she were to re-marry, she could only marry her dead husband’s brother. Janak Anand, a martyr’s widow, said NO to forced widow marriage, and to all the structures that support and normalize it, and yesterday … she, and women across India, won!

Janak Anand’s story is straightforward. In 1971, she and Captain S C Sehgal were married. In December 1971, the Indo – Pakistani War broke out. Captain Sehgal was killed, and posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra. Janak Anand received gallantry benefits, along with the regular family pension. In October 1974, Janak Anand re-married. She married Major Dipak Anand. At that point, she lost her gallantry benefits. Janak Anand protested. Finally, after 43 years of protests, inquiries and litigation, the Armed Forces Tribunal, in September, agreed with Janak Anand, and strongly criticized the government for its policy. Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence suspended the policy. After 43 years of pushing and prodding, Janak Anand will receive her gallantry award payments plus 10%. Additionally, she will have some sense of dignity as a woman recognized formally by the State.

The story of the policy itself is equally straightforward. Janak Anand was not the first to contest it, and each time it was contested, the State fortified the policy. For example, the language of the current rule, cited above, was issued in 1995 by the Minister of Defense. According to Janak Anand, the officials had no sense of urgency in deciding the matter or issuing her any relief.

In September, the Armed Forces Tribunal concluded, “We cannot have a policy which dictates as to whom a widow must marry if she wants to earn financial benefits of her martyred husband. It is nothing but an affront on the dignity of the war widow whose husband sacrificed his life for the country and earned the Vir Chakra. On one hand, the President of India confers the gallantry award to the lady as a mark of respect for her husband’s sacrifice for the country. On the other, our derogatory policies like that of January 31, 1995, humiliate the widow by denying her rightful dues. We are saddened to observe such slipshod treatment to a war widow of 1971.”

Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said, “The government, after considering the issue and receiving several representations, has now been decided to remove the condition of the widow’s remarriage with her late husband’s brother for continuation of the monetary allowance.”

As Sharanya Gopinathan noted, “It’s great news that this bizarre rule has been scrapped, but it also makes you wonder how many more insanities we’re left to find in all our rulebooks and statutes, and how long it will take to clean our laws up.”

After more than four decades of struggling and pushing for her rightful due, both as money and dignity, Janak Anand has forced the unwilling State to begin to face its patriarchy, misogyny, and routine humiliation of women. We were saddened by the slipshod treatment of Janak Anand, and other war widows and other widows and other women, and are delighted and encouraged that, after a lifetime of struggle, yesterday, finally, she won. The struggle for women’s justice continues.

 

(Photo Credit: India Today)

For the silicosis widows of India, the struggle continues

On May 4, India’s Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to compensate the families of 238 workers who died of silicosis while working in unregulated quartz crushing factories. Within the month Gujarat is supposed to pay each family 300,000 rupees, or around $4,500. The Court also directed the Madhya Pradesh government to take care of an additional 304 workers currently suffering from silicosis. As in South Africa, the story of industrial silicosis is a widows’ tale, from horrible start through brutal inner chapters to whatever the end will be.

According to a 1999 Indian Council of Medical Research report, in India about 3 million are at risk of silica exposure. Since that report, the numbers of workers in the various fields – mining and quarries, manufacture of non-metallic products, manufacture of basic metals and alloys, and construction – has only increased, and since that time pretty much nothing has improved in the conditions of labor, and so one assumes that the 3 million mark has been exceeded by quite a bit.

Across Madhya Pradesh, this “occupational trend” has produced an archipelago of widow villages, and that’s the point. The villages are not new and are not unknown. Women’s organizations have long lobbied for compensation. For ten years, the National Human Rights Commission has documented and organized to improve the situation of the workers and their families. At every step of the way, the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have refused any sort of assistance.

It’s a common enough story. Small hold farmers from tribal communities were forced off their lands by market forces, weather, and the poverty of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which, in Madhya Pradesh, guarantees stay-at-home-and-die. And so populations of mostly male workers went off to work in the factories of Gujarat. When they returned home, usually earlier than expected, they were frail, coughing, bleeding versions of the men who had left. And women were left to tend to the dying, the dead, and the debts. Then the women started going to Gujarat to work crushing stones.

Madhavi comes from a village in Madhya Pradesh. She joined four family members who went to work in Gujarat. Six months later, sick, they all returned home. To pay for medical treatment, they sold off their livestock and mortgaged their land. Then Madhavi’s mother, two brothers and sister-in-law died of silicosis. Now, sick with silicosis, Madhavi cares for her father and struggles with debt: “With my brothers gone, I am not sure when I‘ll be able to pay off all the loans. I have received no support from the government. My father does not receive any pension. It is very difficult to get by as I am always tired and run out of breath while working.”

Meanwhile, across Rajasthan, mineworkers’ widows tell the same story of death, debt, and desperation. Prembai explains, “[My husband] could not work for the last six years of his life, so I would work to keep things going. Women earn just Rs100 a day in the mines, while men are paid about Rs250.” The bodies and debts pile up; the State looks away. In Rajasthan as elsewhere, entire villages are called “the land of widows”.

The story of silicosis in India is the same as that in South Africa. For those who work the mines and factories, there is no dignity in labor. For the widows, there is no dignity in death. The bodies come home, the debts and demands mount, the extraction continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Hindu / Rohit Jain Paras)

Marikana: Don’t commemorate. Compensate.

 


It’s been a year, almost, since the massacre at Marikana, and the nation, and its media, are struggling, sort of, to find a way to address all that has, and even more has not, happened in the intervening year. A year later, tensions simmer, the Farlam Commission is more or less falling apart, some great and moving documentaries are beginning to emerge, and the widows of Marikana organize and wait, wait and organize.

This is how the week began. On Sunday, in a prayer service in Langa, national police commissioner Riah Phiyega announced that South Africa would `commemorate’ the Marikana tragedy. How exactly will the police, who used live ammunition to put down a mineworkers’ strike, `commemorate’ the event?

More to the point, is commemoration the best way to honor the dead miners and, even more, their survivors, the widows and children? As one widow explained, soon after the massacre, “Today I am called a widow and my children are called fatherless because of the police. I blame the mine, the police and the government because they are the ones who control the country.”

How will `the nation’ commemorate those who are now called widows and those who are now called fatherless? What happened on August 16, 2012? 34 miners were killed. Many others were wounded. And widows were made. Soon after one mineworker was arrested, police told him, “Right here we have made many widows … we have killed all these men.”

The State machinery, call it a factory, produced widows of women that day, and has continued to produce widows of those very women every single day since. So, here’s a suggestion. Rather than `commemorate’, compensate.

 

(Photo Credit: Greg Marinovich /Daily Maverick)

Widows demand justice

Tomorrow, June 23, is International Widows Day. Around the world, widows are denied justice. They are dropped from social networks, they are forgotten, they are denied access to property, they are circled in by various `cultural’ and legal restrictions. Around the world. This is not about `the developing world’. It’s global.

Rio + 20 ends today. Many who care about the environment, in whatever way, are frustrated by the lack of meaningful action. Women and women’s advocates, in particular, object to the absolute failure of the conference to understand as fundamental the link between family planning and environmental justice. Family planning covers the entire arc of family history, from before cradle to the grave … or at least it should. Did you hear any major discussion in Rio about widows’ rights? Me neither. What about at the G20 meeting in Mexico City this past week? No? Neither did I. How will widows figure into the family planning summit conference in London, in July? Wait and see.

Widows around the world are of all ages, and they share more than grief. They share reduced access to means of survival and well being. Some are workplace widows, such as Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark, Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto, whose respective partners were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, Have they received proper compensation? No. Do the widows of mining disasters receive proper compensation for their loss? Seldom.

Nanda Bhandare’s husband was a cotton farmer. Debts rose, Indian small farmers faced multinational agro-corporations and a hostile global market, bankruptcy and starvation loomed larger and larger. One day, Bhandare’s husband protested with his life. He drank enough pesticide to kill himself. He died, but his debts live on. Years later, his widow has taken the children out of school to work the fields to pay those debts. Each day, they move closer to death by starvation. Where is Nanda Bhandare in the global conference circuitry? Nowhere.

Around the world, widows are initially acknowledged and supported, especially after a catastrophe such as the recent airline crash in Nigeria. What happens next? Too often they are abandoned. Individuals, communities, agencies move on, feeling they have done their due diligence. They haven’t. We haven’t..

Around the world widows are organizing. In the Cross River State, in Nigeria, widows and their supporters are talking about what is needed: enhanced livelihood options through access to real education and equitable finance; increased cooperation among widows and widows-focused organisations through the formation of widows cooperatives and networks; increased public awareness on widowhood issues through information, education and communication; and, finally, enabling a policy environment for widows through an advocacy campaign.

In Nigeria, as almost everywhere, the condition of widows is lamentable, but it is not inevitable.

In Sierra Leone, for example, more than 20% of households are headed by women. Over a third of the women who are heads of households are widows. Women, like Gladys Brima, the founder of Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace, are advocating, organizing, pushing. Women like Sia Bona are staking their lives on organizing. When Bona’s husband died, her in laws swooped in and pushed her and her mother off the farm, a farm that had been Bona’s father’s farm. The law says one thing, customary and traditional law says another. Women, and especially rural women, don’t live in `the State’. They live where they live, locally. Federal or national laws without built in requirements for local transformation are, at best, empty symbols. More often than not, they are tools of oppression, exclusion, and betrayal. Bona, Brima and other women in Sierra Leone are organizing at all levels to change that situation … now.

A version of that exclusion takes place almost everywhere. Widows must have more than a seat at the conference table. They must be prioritized, not just recognized. Thus far, they are not. Instead, widows haunt the discussion of global and of local justice. And they are organizing.

 

(Photo Credit: PTI)