Single Women Break Their Silence, Challenge Societal Norms

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By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

NEW DELHI, Oct 22 (IPS) - It has been more than eight years since the January 2001 earthquake struck the Indian state of Gujarat, but Hansa Rathore still cannot quite shake off memories of that not too distant past — all because it left her a widow.

Twenty-nine-year-old Rathore was just one of thousands of women widowed in the deadly earthquake, one of the worst in India's recorded history. The disaster that left nearly 20,000 people dead in its wake changed her life forever.

"My mother was widowed in the same calamity; my house was destroyed and I had no means to feed my nine-month -old son," she recalls.

She soon learned what it meant to survive in a cloistered conservative community that socially ostracised widows, imposing cruel restrictions on them. "I got no help from my in-laws and was forced to shelter literally in the open, rigging up a makeshift room with sacks and a tin roof. I had no access to work, food or health services for my son, who became very ill," she states.

Sudha Jha, 49, of Katihar district in the northern state of Bihar was widowed in 1998 and has since struggled to raise her three sons and one daughter single-handedly.

"My in-laws didn't want me to stay with them after my husband died, and it was tough getting work to feed and educate my children," says Jha matter-of-factly. She adds that one of the most direct impacts of widowhood was restricted mobility, which often makes widows invisible and unable to access work outside the home.

"A widow is not treated with respect. At times she is still expected to shave her head, wear extremely simple and course white clothes, forbidden to wear jewelry or make-up, and is forced to eat separately, the food consisting of a frugal vegetarian diet," Jha points out. "Why should widows undergo such tortures? Men don't face such discrimination when their wives die; they just marry again!"

Rich or poor, widows struggle against a deep social stigma in most communities in India. Even more ostracised are women who live alone, either because they are unmarried or have been deserted by their husbands. Many married women are trapped in dehumanising personal situations in the family, often enduring battering, humiliation and physical and mental cruelty, unable or unwilling to strike out on their own.

Widowed, abandoned and destitute, Rathore and Jha have resolved to change their predicament and fight for their basic human rights. With the assistance of ActionAid, a non-governmental organisation that started work in the earthquake-affected areas of Gujarat in 2002, Rathore mobilised single women to form ‘Ekal Nari Shakti Manch’ (‘Single Women Power Association’) in the same year. Jha, on the other hand, became a staunch advocate of a single women's group in Bihar, called ‘Ekal Nari Sangharsha Samiti’ (‘Single Women's Struggle Committee’).

These two women, together with six other single women representing the states of Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa and Madhya Padesh, converged in the national capital early this month to launch a ‘National Forum for Single Women's Rights’.

Their demands, which they have presented to the government, include a monthly social security pension of 1,000 rupees (21.65 U.S. dollars), free health care for single women and their children, right to work, rights to property in both natal and marital homes and allotment of land to build a house.

According to the 2001 census by the government — the latest available data — there are 36 million single women in India. But activists dismiss this figure as a conservative estimate, saying it only includes legally divorced and separated women and widows. Abandoned, deserted or unmarried women remain outside the ambit of government’s policy and welfare schemes.

"Over 36 million women in India are single, yet there is no attention being paid to the issues that concern this sector," stated Dr Ginny Shrivastava, a social activist from Rajasthan state in northwest India, during the forum.

Thirty-something Saraswati Singh of ‘Ekta Mahila Manch’ (‘Association of Empowered Single Women’) in Jharkhand state in the east was engaged to a youth from her village only to break her engagement when she decided to put her education ahead of marriage. But it appears she had a deeper reason for her decision.

"After witnessing the physical and mental torture that my elder sister's husband and in-laws inflicted on her because she brought insufficient dowry after marriage, I resolved never to marry myself," Singh confides. But ironically, this decision led to another form of discrimination at home.

"I was doubly stigmatised, once because I was not married, and twice because I often ventured outdoors in connection with the association's work. My family told me I had lost my caste and forbade me to enter the kitchen [considered the most clean and sacred room of the house in conservative Indian communities, which women can only enter after their morning ablutions]," she says. "Also, my brother became afraid that I would try to stake a claim to our father's property, and so persuaded my father to sign over his retirement benefits to him," she adds.

In 2005, the government launched an ambitious national employment programme to ensure that all poor people got at least 100 days of employment in a year. Initially dubbed ‘National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ (NREGA), the government later renamed it the ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ on Oct. 2, 2009 (Gandhi's birthday).

It is thus ironic that groups like single women, whose empowerment mattered most to Gandhi, find that they are not benefitting from the scheme, observe Singh and other single women activists.

Avengillista (who gave only one name), representing Jharkhand in the organising committee of the forum, points, out that programmes like NREGA have left them out on various grounds.

"In some instances, we are told we are too young and not fit to work. In others, we are told that since we have small children, it is not possible to give us any work, and older women are not considered at all," she says.

During the forum the government gave assurances that it would take steps to correct such injustices.

"Exclusion of single women from one of the most important poverty alleviation programmes of the country — NREGA — will amount to undermining the stated objective of the government's Eleventh Five-Year National Plan [that envisions] inclusive growth," says Dr Syeda Hameed, a member of the Planning Commission of India, which formulates and approves the five-year plan of the government. "We will recommend that the scheme adopt new guidelines in order to ensure that single women get their rightful entitlement to the scheme."

According to Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), all evidence shows that single women are socially disadvantaged in more ways than one. "While widows constitute 33 percent of women who experience sexual harassment, when it comes to basic indicators like access to food and health care, they fare even worse," she pointed out during the gathering.

Vyas has declared that the NCW will advocate with the government to introduce specific plans and programmes for single women and find ways to provide them employment. "The NCW is committed to reviewing and expanding the legislation on women's right to property and ensuring that women would inherit their share from their parents and also their in-laws," she stressed.

Amid the difficulties that confront them, the women behind the forum and similar undertakings have made a firm resolve to address these gender inequities.

"We are here to break decades of silence and redefine societal perspectives on single women," says Singh of the Association of Empowered Single Women.

"We want to make sure that the day-to-day struggles that single women are waging against unjust social customs, denial of social entitlements and the various forms of violence that are perpetrated against them are made visible and known to everyone," she adds.

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