Sunderbans study: For widows of tiger victims, scars and stigma linger, study finds

Sunderbans study: For widows of tiger victims, scars and stigma linger, study finds

The research was funded by the World Bank through the West Bengal government's State Health System Development Project.

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The tiger is considered sacred, its attacks a divine curse. Express archive

Forced into a life of unending social stigma, frequently the victims of physical and sexual abuse and living a life of abject penury, nearly half of Sunderban’s “tiger widows” were found suffering from a designated mental illness in a recent study.

In a study of 65 women whose husbands had been killed by tigers — government estimates put the total number at 1,000 both sides of the border — the study, funded by the World Bank, found 44% of the 65 women suffering “from a designated mental illnesses, of which most were major depressive disorders (MDD) including recurrent MDD (14.8%), dysthymic disorder (11.1%), and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (5.5%)”.

And there is the stigma.

“I took so much hardship to raise my only son… starved, earn by hard toll of meen (tiger prawn seed) collection from river under sun, rain and storm, cattle grazing in fields… But when he got a job in the town and married a girl there, he said that they couldn’t take me with them because I am the evil person who devoured her husband (pause and profuse crying) and may caste evil on his family too. So he disconnected from me completely,” the study quoted one of the widows as saying.

The study, titled ‘Ecopsychosocial Aspects of Human–Tiger Conflict: An Ethnographic Study of Tiger Widows of Sundarban Delta, India’ was published in the journal Environ Health Insights last month and was authored by A N Chowdhury of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust in the UK and Ranajit Mondal Arabinda Brahma and Mrinal K Biswas of the Institute of Psychiatry in Kolkata.


The research was funded by the World Bank through the West Bengal government’s State Health System Development Project.

Human-tiger conflict remains a major public health issue in the Sunderban Reserve in Bengal and this study investigates a hitherto unexplored aspect of the conflict — the aftermath of the incident and the lives of the widows who have to not only deal with the bereavement of the sudden and violent loss, but also the cultural stigma associated with being killed by a tiger and social rejection.

At the heart of this cultural stigma lies the belief of the population in the area that the mangrove forest is a sacred entity — the abode of Goddess Bonobibi — and the tiger is the guardian deity of the forest, under the name of Dakkhin Ray (Lord of the South). Tiger attacks, consequently, are perceived as a “divine curse” or “sign that the goddess is displeased, even enraged with the victim and denies protection from the tigers”. Widows suffer from a sense of “guilt and sinfulness” that impacts their “post-trauma psychology” while the community’s rejection of the widows as a “cursed family” further “acts as a magnifier for the compounded stigma burden when added to their already precarious status as widows”.

Further, the study adds, tiger widows are blamed for their husbands’ death by the family and community and that “90% of the widows had been accused of causing their husband’s death by their family in-laws, especially by the mothers-in-law” while being branded as “swami-khego or husband-eater”. Physical abuse by the in-laws is common, particularly by their mothers-in-law (17%–31.5%) and by neighbours (6%–11.1%), said the study. This abuse often enters the realm of sexual abuse and the study notes that a young widow, who participated in the study, said that she “was regularly sexually harassed by her brother-in-law, probably at the instigation of her mother in-law”.

For 86% of the widows, in-laws “denied any financial responsibility for the widow or their children”. “This so-called ‘human-wildlife conflict’ (HWC) needs to be addressed to ensure that local people do not unfairly bear the negative side-effects of conservation, becoming more opposed to it and further jeopardising the survival of high conservation value species,” adds the study.