CHAKSU, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Days before she was married 18 years ago, K. Bina Devi and her sister were called to the living room of the family home where they lived with their parents and four brothers.
There, in a short ceremony witnessed by village elders, she and her sister signed a piece of paper giving up their share of the family property to their brothers. Sweets were distributed and everyone congratulated her and her sister.
The custom of “haq tyag”, or sacrifice of right, entails a person - usually a woman - relinquishing their claim on ancestral property. It is widely practised in the Indian state of Rajasthan despite a 2005 national law that gave women equal inheritance rights.
While haq tyag is voluntary, women come under enormous pressure to comply, activists said.
“If we don’t do it, our family will boycott us,” said Devi, 36, her head covered with the end of her green saree.
“Our relationship with the family will break, and people will speak ill of us,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Chaksu village, about 30 km (19 miles) from Jaipur city.
Haq tyag is justified on grounds that the father pays for his daughter’s wedding, and therefore only the sons are entitled to a share of the family property.
Also, once she is married, a woman is seen as belonging to her husband’s family with no claim on ancestral property.
In a bid to address the imbalance, Rajasthan and other states now offer lower rate mortgages and cheaper registration when a property is registered in the name of a woman.
“Haq tyag is a tradition, and it is voluntary,” said Rajendra Singh Shekhawat, a joint secretary in the state government.
“In some cases, it may not be voluntary. But how can we check if the woman is signing willingly or not? That is why we have laws that encourage property ownership by women,” he said.
One of India’s poorest states, Rajasthan is known as much for its beautiful palaces and majestic forts as for its centuries-old traditions of honour and chivalry.
This is the state where the custom of sati, where widows threw themselves into their husband’s funeral pyre, prevailed long after it was declared illegal in the 19th century. The law was strengthened in 1987 following the death of a young widow in Rajasthan watched by thousands.
Across India, only 13 percent of farmland is owned by women, according to census data.
Amendments in 2005 to the Hindu Succession Act, which governs matters of inheritance among Hindus who make up about 80 percent of India’s population, made women’s inheritance rights equal to those of men.
Yet some state laws run contrary to the legislation, and in states such as Rajasthan, women are made to forgo their claims.
Haq tyag itself is rooted in misogynistic customs and traditions, particularly in India’s villages. These include limited education for girls, early marriage, financial dependence, and denial of the right to property.
“It is a deep-rooted patriarchy that tells women they are okay only as long as they have the protection of a man,” said Varsha Joshi, an associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, who has studied property ownership among women in rural Rajasthan.
“Women have no security, no guarantee of a roof over their heads. And it is assumed they will never go against their families or go to court over being denied their right to property,” she said.
Increasingly though, women in Chaksu village and elsewhere in the northwestern state are having to tend to the land as their husbands migrate in search of work.
With their names missing from property titles, women are often unable to take loans or access government subsidies. They are in danger of being thrown out when the husband dies, as the property then goes to the sons or the husband’s brothers.
Rights activists are raising awareness of the law among women, and encouraging men to take advantage of the perks.
“We have to be respectful of customs: we can’t just go tell women to claim their rights, they will be ostracised if they do,” said Kavita Mishra, head of the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society (CECOEDECON).
“Having a financial incentive is a great way to make the men see the benefit of registering property in the name of the women,” she said.
Women are also becoming more independent and financially literate. Once confined to their homes and dependent on their husbands, women in villages are running small businesses with the help of microfinance, and working in state welfare programmes that provide 100 days’ employment to rural families.
“They now have bank accounts and some financial independence. That has given them the ambition and the confidence to own a home or a plot of land,” said Mishra.
In Chaksu, Devi belongs to a self-help group that sews camel-leather slippers for sale to a retailer in Jaipur, and helps members source loans to buy property.
“It’s important that we women have something in our name. Otherwise we have no security,” said Manju Devikumar, who heads the 10-member group.
“Things are changing. Laws give us equal rights even to own property, which we could never dream of,” she said.