‘They Are My Sisters’: Diary of a Land Rights Activist in Rural India

Kamala Damor, or Sister Kamala, works with women and girls in rural Gujarat to help them access their right to property and inheritance. She tells her story to Chhavi Sachdev.

Written by Chhavi Sachdev Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
At the Swa Bhoomi Kendra center, Kamala Damor (right) helps a woman fill out a subsidy form for organic fertilizer. From left to right: an applicant and NGO workers Amti, Jasi and Sumitra.Chhavi Sachdev

MEGHRAJ, India – On Mondays, I leave home at 9 a.m. so I can be in Meghraj town by 10, when the land awareness and legal literacy center where I work, Swa Bhoomi Kendra, opens.

I call it a center, but it’s a makeshift arrangement for now. I sit with my colleague, Sister Amti, at a large table in the corridor outside a local government official’s room in the panchayat (town council) compound. Amti has been doing this for a year, while I’ve been at it for five. It’s inconvenient and very noisy working in the corridor, but a new building is under construction and next year, we’ll have a nice office with privacy.

As a paralegal worker, I do field work and education outreach three days a week, and I spend the other two doing administrative work, counseling and advocacy. When I’m at the center, I assist women who come to us with questions and problems relating to exercising their land rights.

Today, in the first hour, we had seven walk-ins. Five women needed information on getting government aid for agricultural subsidies and organic fertilizers. Together with Sister Amti, I talked them through what they needed to do and gave them the forms they need to fill in, along with advice about what documents they must bring to get the benefits.

Two of the women needed to have their names added to their village land records; both are widows and we needed to hand in death certificates for their husbands as well as a family tree to prove their right over their property.

A light moment in Rajgod as Damor hosts a community meeting on women’s land rights. (Chhavi Sachdev)

The process of registering women can get complicated because many are not aware of their rights, nor of the steps they have to take to exercise them. Often they don’t know they need a death certificate and that there is a limited window of 30 days in which it can be made. After that, things get very complicated.

There is also sometimes resistance from the men in their families, usually the father-in-law or brother-in-law, because many of them believe the woman will remarry and the land will be transferred to her new husband. Many men don’t even register their daughters on land titles, let alone daughters-in-law.

There is resistance from the men in their families, usually the father-in-law or brother-in-law, because many of them believe the woman will remarry and the land will be transferred to her new husband.

Since the two women had the documents in order, we walked over to the district court to submit them. I remember when I first started, I used to be so frightened about dealing with all the clerks and judges, but now I’m fine. Now they know me and they know I mean business; I generally face no resistance and the clerks get my work done.

Most Mondays, I stay at the center for the whole day, but today I left at noon to visit a nearby village. Just as we were stepping out, Sister Maryam came up to us. This is her third visit; we’ve been counseling her on what steps she needs to take to get access to her property.

Her story is not unusual. Her husband died 13 years ago in an accident. He had a fifth of a share in his family’s land and that’s where she lived. Last year, her brothers-in-law needed money and they decided to sell the land. Maryam’s husband’s death was never declared so there is no death certificate. So, to expedite matters, they told the land registrar that Maryam’s husband is away for work in Dubai and she has the power of attorney to sign on his behalf. They promised her money for that share, but seven months later, she has seen no money and, of course, no longer has any land.

Maryam has been trying to get a death certificate made and I am helping her. Two colleagues from a nearby NGO suggested Maryam should file a case against her brothers-in-law for fraud. After much discussion, we decided that I will look into how we can do that.

In the afternoon, I headed out to the tribal village of Rajgod for a community meeting. Usually, I tell the women about the importance of inheriting land and adding their children – including girls – to land deeds. I also tell them about new cases I’ve been working on.

Kamala Damor catches a lift to her meeting in the village of Rajgod. (Chhavi Sachdev)

We do involve the village men – we have to get the panchayat on board, because they are crucial allies in upholding inheritance laws. But today this meeting is just for women. I always check where the women are in the process of having their land registered in their names.

It must seem odd how we all talk about death so very casually, but we have to. So many young women are widowed in our district because they get married so young, at 13 or 14, to much older men. By the time they’re in their 30s, their husbands die. It’s just the reality.

So many young women are widowed in our district because they get married so young, at 13 or 14, to much older men. By the time they’re in their 30s, their husbands die.

The more we talk to women, the more they understand the implications of widowhood. We caution them about how when their husbands die, they stand to lose everything, which is why they must get their names added to the register while their husband is still alive. And we explain that they will need to get his death registered immediately when the husband dies. The women need to know their rights and they need to understand the law. That’s why we do meetings.

As our time in Rajgod came to an end, I asked five women who’ve been widowed recently if they had any questions. This is the third time I’ve come to this village and met these women, and today, finally, one of them spoke up. Her husband’s death was registered two months ago, but an agent came to her and said he’d get her land rights done for a fee of 2,000 rupees ($30). He took the original papers from her. She hasn’t heard from him since then and she’s worried about what’s going to happen now.

I’m glad she spoke up. These things happen – people are constantly trying to dupe women out of their rightful inheritance, but we’ll help her get the official paperwork reissued.

After a long day, I head back home to my village, Valuna. My job is difficult and it never ends. There are always more women who need assistance in exercising their rights to land. But they are my sisters; I have to help them.

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