A significant portion of the female population that finds no mention in government agendas are single women
Widows, deserted, separated, abandoned, walked out, thrown out, older and younger unmarried single women remain unrecognised by both the society and government.
The most ‘forgotten’ women of the country, there is very little information available on their numbers and even less information on how they survive. According to the 2002 census, there are 39.8 million single women in the country.
The National Forum for Single Women’s Rights is a collective of more than 50,000 women across different states that organises, struggles and lobbies with governments for rights. These are widows, separated, divorced, unmarried mothers, women whose husbands are missing and those single women living with HIV/AIDS. In short, “A woman who is not living with a man in a marital-like relationship.”
The women came together as a collective to reiterate not only its demand to constitutional rights, but also to fight against the feudal and patriarchal society that denies them a dignified existence.
The organisation includes women like Sharifa from Ahmedabad, who fights with maulanas for abolishment of iddat (customary home confinement) for divorced Muslim women and government officials in Gandhinagar who refuse to release grains sanctioned for widows.
“Post the 2002 riots I have been involved in a peace initiative between dalits and muslims. In 2006 a lot of young girls were married off in the camps and that led to several problems for the girls who had to face divorce, etc. Since then, I have been working with Muslim women,” she says.
The organisation also includes women like Saraswati from Jharkhand, who has first hand witnessed the Adivasi’s ‘daayan’ pratha where widows are branded witches and ostracised by the community. And this, to curb her from claiming her property rights after her husband’s death.
Representatives from seven States where the forum is active -- Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Punjab -- gathered in the Capital recently and discussed how to take forward their struggle by approaching local MLAs and MPs before the next general election. An Advisory Committee Meeting was also held.
When they met the Chairperson, National Commission for Women, Mamta Sharma, she supported their demand for increase in the amount of social security pensions, and assured the gathering that NCW would take the recommendation to the government.
The pension doled out to widows in different States is paltry, with Punjab giving Rs 250, Rs 400 in Jharkhand, Rs 500 in Rajasthan, Rs 950 in Gujarat and Rs 650 in Maharashtra.
Even government flagship schemes do not factor in the single women.
“The livelihood missions are not single-women-friendly. They demand high educational qualification levels. Even where they ask for Class VIII pass, it’s too high for several women. Besides, the cut-off on age is 35. While this helps some women, we feel the upper limit should be 50 years. When it comes to land, some women have rights to land, but no possession,” says Ginny Shrivastava of the forum.
The meeting was also attended by Rashmi Singh, executive director of the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, who pointed out the need to find effective strategies for implementation of government programmes for effective coverage of the needy. Dr Mohini Giri, senior social activist, writer, scholar and chairperson of the National Commission of Women (1994-98) exhorted Single Women present to take forward their struggle to all the more than 40 crore single women in the nation. She also emphasised the need to ensure that collectives of single women, besides claiming better social security from the government, should also claim community lands and form farming cooperatives.