First-person accounts of travails they face and expectations they have from society and state
Jasleen Kaur | March 8, 2013
When the plight of women in general calls for urgent policy interventions, problems faced by single women definitely take a backseat. More than 3.9 crore of them (according to 2001 census) face prejudices at best, and outright harassment at worst — every day. Now, thousands of single women, most of them with low income, have come together under the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights (NFSWR), trying to cope with society and bring in change.
The forum has now prepared a study, titled “Are We Forgotten Women?”, based on a survey on the status of low-income single women in India. Not quite unexpected, the survey — based on responses from single women in Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan — says young single women face extremely challenging circumstances. Many go through broken marriage, widowhood, diseases, raising children alone, lack of a place to call her own, violence, harassment, exploitation, lack of formal education and employment, loneliness, social restrictions, and more.
Governance Now spoke to a few women who now work as district coordinators for the organisation in their respective states.
Nirmal Chandel, 45, Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh
I was all of 25 when my husband died 20 years ago. For a year, like other women in the community, I 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. I was to wear only black and white clothes, turn vegan and was not allowed to participate in weddings and social rituals.
But unlike other women, I did not accept it as my fate and fought my way out. A year after my husband had died, I started working with an NGO as a part-time accountant and continued to work for 16 years. In 2004, I attended a seminar organised in Jaipur along with other women.
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.
I started working for the rights of single women in various districts of Himachal Pradesh the same year. After eight years of hard work, which involved a lot of travelling, encouraging single women in distant areas to discuss their problems and taking them to the right platforms, I feel things have started changing. Earlier, 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 were elected for various posts. I have developed their confidence and also want other women to live their life fully.
Single women in various districts regularly assemble to discuss their problems. These women were earlier allowed to assemble only to mourn a death in
We have also worked for these women to get jobs under various government schemes. We have also put pressure on the state government to improve the financial condition of these women. The government has increased the amount of pension given to them. Widow pension has been increased to Rs 450 per month from Rs 200, and Rs 800 is given to those who are above 80 years.
The state has also launched a one-of-its-kind-scheme called ‘Mother Teresa Sahay Sambal Yojana’. Under this scheme, every year the state gives Rs 3,000 per child to women for the child’s education. Also, Rs 11,000 is given for a girl child’s wedding.
A lot of social change can also be seen in the community. Widows are no more forced to remove jewellery, while people are opening up to the idea of remarriage. Many families have also started allowing widows to be part of social rituals.
We (single women) all have that courage and skill, but we just need to take one small step to achieve what we deserve. We just try and encourage these
women to take that step and lead their life beautifully.
Hansa Rathod, Kachchh, Gujarat
I got married to a man from Madhya Pradesh at the age of 19. He used to work in Gujarat but soon after my marriage we shifted to his hometown. My in-laws were very kind and loving. After a while we was blessed with a baby boy. There were not many employment opportunities there and we decided to come back to my village, Sinugra.
One day my husband went for his work and never returned. He along with my father died in the earthquake of 2001. My son was just nine months old and my life was completely changed.
I was just 20 at the time and I was told to wear only black or white clothes. I was also asked not to wear any jewellery. My in-laws severed relations with me. Four months later, in May 2001, an NGO named Prayas started working in my village. I attended all their community meetings and soon began working with them. I worked on different issues, specifically those related to single women. Later, in 2006, we got in touch with Ekal Naari Shakti Manch, which focused on various issues like social security, ill treatment, domestic violence and property rights of single women in the community.
While working with the Manch, I travelled to many villages in the district. I came to know about the real situation of single women in the community. But over last six years we have managed to bring in some change. Today we have an association of 1,500 single women. We have also worked to protect women from domestic violence. We have been able to register agricultural land in the name of 17 women. We have also been able to increase the amount of widow pension to Rs 950 from Rs 660. Single women have also been able to get job cards to work under MNREGS.
Sharifa Chheepa, 40, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
I got married in 1992 and immediately after that my husband started demanding dowry. When I refused to fulfil his demand, I was beaten almost every day. This continued for four years.
In 1996 my daughter was born but they (the in-laws) did not let me feed her and I was forced to leave the house. I returned to live with my parents.
In 2003, my husband filed for divorce; I couldn’t get the custody of my daughter.
I started working from home subsequently, stitching clothes to eke out a living. I tried a lot to meet my daughter but in vain. Life, though, really changed after the 2002 riots. Our house was destroyed and we lived in the camp for eight months. In August 2002 I joined a local group and started working for the rights of Muslim women staying in the camp. In the camp, families started marrying off their daughters at an early age to avoid incidents of abuse and rape.
So these girls, all of 12-13 years, were forced to take up household responsibilities. But they could not manage to handle things, leading to a lot of divorce cases at the time. All men had to do was say the word ‘talaq’ thrice and they were free from their responsibility. Many of these girls faced physical and mental torture.
In 2006, four of us joined together and formed a group called Nishwa, an Urdu word that means ‘women’.
In the Muslim community, widows are forced to have iddat for four and a half months. As part of iddat, a woman is not allowed to see the face of any other man apart from her father or brother; she cannot (even) see the sunlight. This period goes on for of two months for women who are divorced. Men are not made to do this.
In 2008, our group joined the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights. No one tells us about our rights, the maulvi only gives a fatwa and asks us to follow it. But working with the forum, we got to know about our rights. We also got to know the right way to get a divorce. In the last four years we have been working with widows and divorced women, and 11 of them refused to have iddat.
Things have started changing. Earlier, people used to say that widows should not show their face to the world, but now we give them the example of Sonia Gandhi. Single women have also started participating in social rituals.
It is really difficult to work for the uplift of Muslim women. They follow maulvis religiously but we are trying to bring in change. The state government has also accepted our demand to increase pension. The widow pension has been increased to Rs 750 per month from Rs 500.
Radha Ragwal, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh
I was married at the age of 21 in 1994 and moved to Gurgaon, where my husband worked as a driver. Soon after marriage, I got to know that my husband was addicted to alcohol; he used to hit me but I never had the courage to raise my voice against what was happening with me. I still have injury marks on my body. Sometimes I was beaten up so badly that I couldn’t even get up from the bed for days.
My son was born a year later. (In all) I stayed with my husband for five years before returning to my parent’s house in Dharamshala. For four years I struggled to lead a good life and thought of returning to him on several occasions. But in 2003 I finally told my husband that I could not live with him.
Initially it was difficult to survive (as) no one was ready to give me work. After a lot of hard work I managed to find some part-time job. It was a very difficult time of my life. People around blamed me for the broken marriage. They said there must be something wrong with me, and they ill-treated me. I was also not allowed to attend rituals.
Though there was no problem in accessing government schemes but finding jobs under these schemes was really difficult. I was told that jobs like that of aanganwadis were meant for daughters-in-law of the village and not the daughters. I was very depressed but my mother was always by my side.
In 2006 I joined the Sangathan and saw a new face of life. I realised that even as a single woman I have the identity of my own. We were told that we can only fight for our rights. I started working for the Sangathan and encouraged other women to lead a good life. I got confidence to live life again and now I am working to make other single women feel the same.
We tell women that life is very precious and we should not stop living just because we are single.
Much is changing now, though. I used to be scared of even speaking to anyone but now I regularly go to the police station and interact with senior officers on various issues. I want a woman to live with dignity and pride but only she can take the first step toward this. No one else can help her take that step to bring in change.
I also train women in self-defence. I want to reach out to each and every woman and ensure that the next generation does not face the same problem.
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