Land titles of farmers who kill themselves in an Indian state will be given to their widows, according to a government order, granting inheritance equality in a nation where their property rights are often denied.
A Maharashtra state government order issued this week said the widows would also receive assistance with their children's education, and access to welfare benefits such as the rural jobs scheme.
"This will allow women to get their rights and resolve problems they face," said the order, which human rights activists said was the first of its kind in the country.
More than 300,000 farmers killed themselves in India in the two decades to 2015, government data said. The western state of Maharashtra accounted for more than a third of the deaths in 2015, with a common cause being debt from crop failure.
Widows often face difficulty in claiming their husband's property and in receiving government compensation and other benefits, human rights activists said.
"The land does not get automatically transferred to the widow. It is often the husband's male relatives who will take it," said Nirja Bhatnagar, a regional head at advocacy group ActionAid India.
"Woman are not even recognised as farmers. So having the land title in their name is crucial to enable them to take bank loans and avail of government subsidies like crop insurance," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.
With more than 46 million widows, India has the highest number in the world, according to the Loomba Foundation which advocates for their rights.
Widows generally face prejudice, particularly in rural areas, where they are considered inauspicious and a financial burden to the husband's family, with whom they typically live.
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Widows of farmers who have killed themselves in Maharashtra often face abuse, eviction and threats to their children's safety when they demand their inheritance, a 2017 study by advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN).
"The Maharashtra government move is a positive step towards ensuring greater equality, and the physical and economic security for these widows," said Shivani Chaudhry, HLRN's executive director.
"But the government also needs education campaigns to spread awareness about the order, and steps to ensure its implementation. Policy changes are also required to recognise women as farmers so they can access credit and other resources."
India's constitution gives women equal rights but custom dictates that land is inherited by male sons. Although the law states that a widow is the legal heir to her husband's property, in practice she is seldom allowed to stake her claim.
Nearly three-quarters of rural women in India depend on land for a livelihood, yet only about 13 percent own land.