Sundarbans widows brave at jungles after tigers killed their husbands

06 Sep 2017, 14:15


Lahiripur:  Geeta Mridha lost her husband on Valentine’s Day 2014. He was fishing in the backwaters of Sundarbans National Park with four others when a tiger leaped out of the jungle and dragged him away by the throat.

Ms Mridha says the other men didn’t even have time to react. His body was never found.

‘After my husband’s departure, I became completely helpless and hopeless. I didn’t know what to do and how to run the family,’ she said.

The Sundarbans National Park in Bengal is known for its natural beauty, with its lush mangroves and rich wildlife. But for people like Ms Mridha, who live on the floodplains, the park is a place of hardship and loss.

The Sundarbans is home to the world’s largest population of tigers, and coastal erosion due to climate change is pushing human residents further into their path. Every year, 50 fishermen or honey collectors are killed in tiger attacks, researchers estimate.

After losing their family’s breadwinner, women are left to fend for themselves and their children. They are the ‘tiger widows’ of Bengal.

For the widows of the Sundarbans, the search for regular income is compounded by the social stigma they face.

A study published in the journal Environmental Health Insights in 2016 found that women widowed by tigers are often blamed – unjustly – for the deaths of their husbands.

In the country’s patriarchal society, women are often seen as responsible for any ill fortune that befalls a family. In the Sundarbans, most tiger widows are branded ‘swami-khego’ or ‘husband-eaters’ by their in-laws.

‘Fearing being ostracised by society, these women keep to themselves and go about their life pretending as if nothing happened,’ said Arjun Mandal of the Sunderbans Rural Development Society (SRDS) and the head of a local community of fishermen.

SRDS, which conducted an informal survey between 2006 and 2016 with the help of fishermen and their families, estimates that 260 families have lost breadwinners to tiger attacks in Lahiripur alone.

In the past, widows had been able to make a living after their husbands’ deaths by cultivating prawns or carrying out small-scale survival farming. But sea-level rise and population growth are putting the delta’s delicate ecosystems under increasing pressure.