Single, divorced or widowed women in India are customarily excluded from many areas of life, are often subject to significant discrimination and abuse, and can feel extremely ostracised and alone. www.flickr.com/photos/christianaidimages/sets/72157629130..
By Swapna Majumdar
Delhi (Women’s Feature Service) – ‘Namaste, main Radha hoon, ek paritakta. (Greetings, I am Radha, a deserted woman)’. When Radha Devi, 32, introduces herself her eyes brim with confidence, her voice is loud and clear. For a rural woman from Himachal Pradesh who five years ago did nothing even as her alcoholic husband thrashed her, this was a huge change.
But achieving this transformation was not easy. Radha had accepted that violence at her husband’s hands was her fate and was ashamed to tell anyone about the beatings. She was also afraid that she would be separated from her son if she complained. She would have probably continued this way had not she met members of the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (Association of Single Women).
Says Nirmal Chandel, state coordinator of the Himachal Pradesh unit of ENSS, “Even after we met her, Radha was unwilling to leave her husband. It took us several meetings to convince her that unless she took some action, she would lose her son anyway because she would be dead.”
Finally, Radha gathered the courage to leave her husband, along with her son. Since 2007, she hasn’t looked back and today heads ENSS’s state unit in Rakkar in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district.
Radha is not the only woman whose life has changed. Several ENSS members shared their stories of change at a recent meeting held in the Capital. Organised by the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights, the meeting brought single women comprising widows, abandoned, deserted, unmarried and divorced women from seven states together to discuss how their issues could be mainstreamed in the national discourse.
According to the 2001 census, more than 39.8 million women are single. This figure is expected to be much higher in the 2011 census, the results of which are presently awaited. The issues of single women were first raised in 2000 after the ENSS was set up in Rajasthan. Started by Astha Sansthan, an Udaipur-based non-government organisation, ENSS began with a handful of members. Over the last 12 years, the movement has gathered steam, with 80,000 members across eight states. Single women have formed state units in Bihar, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Other states expected to join the ENSS family soon are Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.
As the movement grew, the single women’s collective broke several barriers, especially of silence. In Bihar and Jharkhand, support by the collective has helped to save many widows targeted as ‘daians’, or witches, from being lynched by violent mobs. In Rajasthan, the Sangathan has given single women the confidence and legal knowledge to claim their rights to land, while their counterparts in Gujarat have been helped to speak out against violence, discrimination and assisted in resuming their education. ENSS members in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have helped each other break cruel traditional customs, stand up to sexual harassment and seek police and legal assistance. As single women came together, shared their experiences, grief and pain, they were inspired by the courage displayed by many of the other members of their group who had stood up for their rights and successfully accessed their entitlements, ranging from pensions to birth certificates.
Even while state units continued to reach out to single women, it was found to be necessary to bring their issues to the national fora in order to achieve policy level changes, according to Ginny Srivastava, founder of ENSS and co-founder, Astha Sansthan. To make that happen, in 2009, different state units of ENSS got together to form the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights (NFSWR) that lobbies for their rights at the national level. The NFSWR advisory committee is now focusing on strategies that could be translated, especially keeping in mind the upcoming general elections. “Getting politicians to include the issues of single women in their election manifesto is very difficult. We held several meetings with them to make them aware of the importance of single women’s rights. We also managed to get a few political parties to include some of our issues in their manifestoes during assembly elections, after convincing them that single women now form an important vote bank,” revealed Chandel, who was herself widowed at the young age of 23.
The Himachal ENSS unit, working through SUTRA, a NGO engaged with gender empowerment, has become a force to contend with. It is the recipient of the Ashoka’s Changemakers Award in 2010 for its success in enabling all 35 single women in Tikri village of Baijanth block to access government schemes.
Single women, as an entity, have also made it into the Twelfth Five Year Plan for the first time, which means that government programmes and policies can focus on their specific needs.
But the forum is not stopping with these achievements. One of the issues it is pushing is the allotment of land for collective farming to enable single women to access sustainable livelihoods. This demand has been supported by the National Commission for Women and the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, both of which have agreed that the government should help women claim community lands and form farming cooperatives.
Findings of a 2011 study conducted by representatives of the single women’s group have validated this demand. Entitled ‘Are We Forgotten Women? A study of the status of low-income single women in India’, the study found that in the absence of marketable skills, education, and ownership of resources, single women rely heavily on daily wage labour for survival. This makes them easy prey for exploitation and abuse. Conducted in six states, the survey covered 386 single women and noted that 75 per cent of single women survived on less than the minimum wage with as many as 90 per cent dependent on borrowings to make ends meet. Ironically, only 21 per cent managed to get recognised as living below the poverty line (BPL) by the government.
For single women, it is a long, hard road ahead. But they are determined to prove that while they may be single, they are not alone and will certainly not allow themselves to be forgotten.
Women’s Feature Service
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