By Manipadma Jena
BARIPADA, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When her husband died seven years ago, leaving her to fend for herself, 37-year-old Kuni Majhi survived hunger, illness, drunk men hammering at the flimsy tin door of her thatched hut - and very nearly lost all hope.
Recently however, Majhi was offered a chance of a secure future - in the form of a small block of land complete with a brick house of her own.
Single women like Majhi are among the most vulnerable and invisible of India's landless class, often from lower caste indigenous communities. But one district, Mayurbhanj in the eastern state of Odisha, is challenging gender inequality in the country's land laws by offering land and shelter to women living alone.
"The indigenous communities here have a fragile family fabric: women are often abandoned or widowed early, left single with small children to care for," Rajesh Prabhakar Patil, administrative chief of Mayurbhanj told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"They bear a life of exploitation and indignity and even become targets of human trafficking and witch-hunting. Their suffering stems from lack of access to a land title," he said.
Odisha's 2014 policy states that landless single women with an annual income below $615 should be registered as a separate household and are eligible for a plot of government-owned land up to 4,350 square feet, similar to the size of a tennis court.
Women can receive the land grant on the proviso that they are living alone and independently.
Traditionally, most widows, abandoned wives and unmarried women older than 30, including those with disabilities, stay with their extended family. This often means that they forfeit their land rights because by custom, these transfer back to the male head of the household.
In Mayurbhanj, access to land for single women has been further complicated by the fact that 92 percent of the 2.5 million-strong population live in rural areas, Odisha District Government data shows. Of these, 66 percent are classified as indigenous and Dalit and nearly half lack any schooling or formal education. Half are women.
Despite introducing more progressive inheritance and land rights laws, Odisha district data also shows that just 3.3 per cent of farm land is owned by women compared to the national Indian average of 13 per cent. India's Housing census data from 2012 also showed there are more households headed by women in Odisha than the national average, at more than 12 percent.
India's 2012 Socio-Economic Caste Census data reveals that 40 per cent of single-women household heads do not own land and are forced to eke out an existence through manual labor.
In India, identification of those eligible for state assistance is the role of the Revenue (Land Administration) Department.
However the Mayurbhanj district is trying to speed up the identification process by pioneering a new, informal, community based network of local health workers. Known as 'anganwadi', they help look after village mothers with children and now work closely with Department of Women and Child Development to help identify and register landless single women.
Their day-to-day work at village level means that they become familiar with local families and can regularly update lists, including any changes in women's economic situation.
This less formal system of monitoring is backed by visits from local land officers who verify and check the information and use it to draw up the final eligibility list of women targeted for land grants.
Over the three years since the program was launched, 68,000 single women have been identified across Mayurbhanj and 19,000 are deemed eligible for land titles, district officers say.
An estimated 3,500 women will be granted new land parcels from the government's 'Land to Landless' program while 450 will be given formal title to the land they are already living on. A further 6,200 widows will be given their own land titles after their deceased husbands' names are removed from deeds.
For the first time too, an Indian family land partition law, amended in 2005 but largely sidelined until now, is to be vigorously implemented allowing women to share land equally with their brothers.
"So far, 3,000 single women have received land titles and the rest are being processed," administrative chief, Patil told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The database of single women identified via the program will be stored in a web-based system set up by Landesa, a Seattle-based land rights NGO, and run by the government.
This will allow tracking of service delivery, monitor accountability and provide links with other government social security schemes.
RECRUITMENT DRIVE FOR WOMEN WORKERS
The Mayurbhanj administration has also tried to assuage women's anxiety about navigating male officialdom and the land titling system without male family members by launching a recruitment drive for more women to work in the land sector.
In her leaky thatched house, Kuni Majhi said her $5 monthly widow's pension is spent on buying rice and there simply isn't enough left over to save for a new roof.
Now, having a land title means she is eligible for the government-built, one-room brick house which is nearing completion.
The land document also confirmed her below-poverty status, securing a 10 kg ration of rice under India's food security scheme.
"When a single woman separates from the larger family ... local networks too also largely withdraw support," said 70-year-old Gurubari Dei, widowed when she was just 20.
However the women say that some cultural change is happening and the newer generation's responses are becoming less negative.
"It is as if this small piece of land has given her life [back] into her own hands, such is the transformation in my mother," said her daughter Sombari Singh.
"She made me re-think if we should not change our long-held assumption that women should always remain under a male power," Singh said.
Gurubari Dei also has a bank savings account now, as this is a requirement for all land holders.
Klaus Deininger, a World Bank economist, says a bank account can become a kind of bargaining shield against exploitation and family violence: in India, women who own land are eight times less likely to experience domestic violence.
(Reporting by Manipadma Jena Editing by Paola Totaro Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)