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Shunned As ‘Husband Eaters’, Meet The Tiger Widows Of Sundarbans

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When you venture to the east of India, you reach the confluence of the mighty Brahmaputra and the holy Ganga. The biggest delta of its kind in the world, which gives rise to the dense and marshy Sundarbans. This happens to be one of the most densely populated areas in terms of human settlements. The fauna and culture in this area give rise to a new classification of a group of women, the Bagh Bidhobaas.

The Sunderbans National Park is home to over 400 exotic Bengal Tigers, according to the latest figures. Sundarbans is one of the last few places remaining where these giant cats and mankind live in such proximity, thus making it a hot spot for numerous human deaths as a result of tiger attacks. The primary means of human survival in the area is heavily dependent on forest works, with collecting wood, honey or any other forestry products, etc.

A body from the tiger attack is often hard to find—what’s even more difficult is to trace the victim’s identity. A huge number of men go deep into the jungle on a daily basis to provide for their families. Their encounter with tigers is not a rare occurrence, and deaths are often witnessed due to the same. The widows of the men who are killed or assumed to be killed by a tiger are known as Baagh Bidhobaas or Tiger Widows.

These women are treated as outcasts and referred to as Swami Khego(women who ate their husbands). Losing the breadwinner of their family, they are often left to fend for themselves. Being illiterate and poverty-stricken, without community support, life becomes extremely difficult for them. Some of them are lucky enough to get re-married, but most are left to look after themselves and their kids.

One such story is of Rizia Begum of Golakhali area. Her husband, Ameer Ali Molla, passed away due to an attack by a man-eater tiger. In the year 2000, he went to the forest to collect honey. A tiger attacked him in the Dibilkhal area. The tiger bit his throat. His respiratory tract was removed, and the man died a gruesome death.

Rizia Begum is living a life of difficulty now. She has two daughters to take care of and resorts to fishing in a nearby tributary and tries to sell whatever she can. Life has been difficult for them—as more days go by without the basic two-time meal for the family, with days when they all sleep hungry.

Massive deforestation has further reduced the distance between tiger inhabited areas and the human-occupied land, thus making humans more vulnerable to tiger attacks.

Tiger widows have existed for years, but there has been a rapid increase in the number of such widows since the last few years. As of 2017, there were estimated to be more than 3000 such women. One of the most important contributor to the rise of this phenomenon is climate change.

In the last 20 years, the sea-levels have increased by 3% in Sundarbans, which, in turn, has made water more saline, submerged islands and decreased the overall forest land. As a result, the villagers have to go deeper into the forested areas, intruding the tiger inhabited parts of the forest, for fishing, crabs, etc. Adding to the problem, this has also adversely affected the mangroves present there.

In the past two decades, a decrease in freshwater has affected agriculture in the area. According to the West Bengal government, the agricultural area has shrunk between 2002–2009 from 2,149.615 square kilometers to 1691.246 kilometers. Furthermore, massive deforestation has reduced the distance between tiger inhabited areas and the human-occupied land, thus making humans more vulnerable to tiger attacks.

It has been observed that 5% of the forest cover was lost between 1989–2009, and it has further depleted in the past decade. Lastly, due to the heavy siltation and disposal of solid waste from adjacent cities, the rivers in Sundarbans do not get water from upstream Ganga and are primarily tidal fed. A massive ecological change has evolved in the delta due to huge discharge of untreated domestic and industrial effluents carried by tributary rivers and disposal of contaminated mud from the harbor. This has caused a disastrous impact on the biodiversity harbored by the mangroves.

Any patriarchal custom in the modern world must be challenged and sought to get rid of. However, the rapid increase in practice is clearly attributed more to the changing climate. Climate Change is a phenomenon with visible symptoms around the world. In the Sundarbans, it further affects human society in ways such as the ostracizing of ‘tiger widows’. It’s high time that the government takes notice of this issue and further implements policies that can help these women combat climate change—whilst preserving nature and the tiger.

Note: When forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. Averaged over 2015 – 2017, global loss of tropical forests contributed about 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (or about 8-10% of annual human emissions of carbon dioxide) (WRI 2018).

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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