Nirmal Chandel was all of 25 when her husband died, 20 years ago. For a year, like other women in the community, Nirmal was forced to stay at home and not allowed to talk to anyone. “That is how widows were treated. A few have to go through the ordeal even now,” says Nirmal, who lives in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh. She adds, “I was to wear only black and white clothes, turn vegan and was not allowed to participate in marriages and social rituals.”
But Nirmal, unlike other women, did not accept it as her fate and fought her way out. A year after her husband had died, she started working with an NGO as a part-time accountant and continued to work for 16 years. In 2004, Nirmal along with other women attended a seminar organised in Jaipur. “Firstly, I was very surprised to know about a programme meant only for single women. And when I reached there, I was surprised to see many widows in brightly coloured clothes,” says Nirmal, who now wears colourful clothes and jewellery.
Nirmal started working for the rights of single women in various districts of Himachal Pradesh the same year. After eight years of hard word which involved a lot of travelling, encouraging single women in distant areas to discuss their problems and taking them to the right platforms, Nirmal feels things have started changing. “Women used to cry that no one was ready to listen to their problems. We encouraged them and trained them to stand for gram panchayat elections. Eighty-nine women participated and 25 women were elected for various posts,” she says. And they have even managed to increase the amount of pension given to widows by the state government.
Like Nirmal, thousands of low-income single women in the country are associated with the Forum for Single Women's Rights (FSWR) in their respective states. They are trying to give meaning to their lives by bringing change and hope in the lives of thoers like them. As per the 2002 census, the number of single women in India is more than 39 million.
The FSWR organised its two-day fourth annual meet in Delhi on Thursday. In October, the forum had released a study named “Are We Forgotten Women?” based on a survey on the status of low income single women in India. The survey, based on responses from single women in Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan points out that young single women face extremely challenging circumstances. Many go through broken marriage, widowhood, disease, raising children alone, no place to live, violence, harassment, exploitation, little formal education, lack of employment, loneliness, social restrictions, and more.
The study says that many single women are not dependent members of the households of their father, brother or in-laws. Sixty-five percent of the widowed women live in the marital village while 75% of the separated and divorced women live in their natal village. Also, many single women share or live in the same house as extended family members, they take responsibility for themselves and their children. Of the total respondents, only 15% live alone.
According to the study, low-income single women have no financial security. These women rely heavily on casual daily wage unskilled labour for survival. This makes them easy prey for exploitation and abuse.
The study says housing and shelter needs of single women are not adequately met. Most respondents live in kutcha houses which lack in basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation.
The study also shows that single women are harassed by family members and neighbours and they are also viewed with suspicion and are often accused of immoral behaviour.
According to the study, social security pensions only reach about a quarter of the respondents. The existing pension schemes does not take into account social security needs of separated and divorced women, unmarried women or of widows younger than 40 years.
While single women vote in large numbers, their political participation at the local level is poor. There is lack of awareness about local self-governance. However, the local self-governance system has the potential to bring democracy to the grassroots. Thirty percent reservation for women in local self-governance has created an opportunity for challenging and changing social norms.
Separated and divorced women are an extremely vulnerable group. Society often labels them bad women, while for the government they are invisible. A majority of women do not have court decrees of separation or of divorce. More than 85% of them take responsibility for the children.
The forum is not only demanding the economic and social rights of women but also helps them in getting job.