Not willing to rely on the charitable impulses of family and society for support, the low-income single women in the country — comprising the most vulnerable 10 per cent of the entire female population in the country — on Tuesday said public funds were required for them to live with dignity.

The number of Single Women in India is very large — 39.8 million as per 2002 Census. The Central and the State governments need to make adequate budgetary provisions to reach out to this large number of women. Insufficient provisions at the top, lead to single women in need being turned away, at the bottom, according to a survey “Are We Forgotten Women? A study on the status of low-income single women in India” released by the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights here on Tuesday.

Seeking to debunk the general belief that all single women are old women at the last stage of their life, the survey points out there are many young single women in extremely challenging circumstances. Many have much to cope with — broken marriage, widowhood, disease, raising children alone, no place to go, violence, harassment, exploitation, little formal education, lack of employment, loneliness, social restrictions, and more.

“Given the many disadvantages that come with being a woman and being single, it cannot be believed that just because they are young and able bodied, they would be able to fulfill all their needs, and those of their children. The security net of the government has to include younger single women as well,” Ginny Shrivastava, author of the survey, told reporters.

The data of this study has been collected from single women in Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan with about 386 respondents. More than half the respondents are below the age of 45 years, while only 7.3 per cent are more than 60 years old. Even though the group is relatively young, only less than half the women are literate. Of the respondents who are literate, the drop-out rate before the completion of Primary as well as Secondary level education are high, indicating low age at marriage.

Over 65 per cent of the widowed women live in the marital village, while 75 per cent of the separated and divorced women live in their natal village. Even though many single women share or live in the same house as extended family members, they take responsibility for themselves and their children. Single women are clearly the heads of their households, but they are not recognised as such by the government with only around 40 per cent listed as “head of household” on their Ration Card.

Of the total respondents, 15.5 per cent lived alone. Housing and shelter needs of single women are not adequately met. Most respondents live in 1 to 2 room kutcha houses, lacking in basic amenities such as water, electricity and sanitation. While at least around 60 per cent of the widowed women are able to retain control of the home that they built during the years of their marriage, while separated and divorced women are instantly dispossessed when the marriage breaks up. Ever-married women living in their natal homes often face abuse and are made to feel like a burden. Unmarried women also do not have security of shelter after the death of the parents.

“Single women are harassed by family members and neighbours; they are viewed with suspicion and are often accused of immoral behaviour. Many of them do not have a secure roof over their heads; they live with the fear of being thrown out by landlords. Only 12.7 per cent of the respondents could benefit from Government housing schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojana,” Ms. Shrivastava said.

Only 40 per of the total respondents own land. Most of them have marginal land holdings; many low-income single women belong to landless families, and inheriting land is not really an option. Because of the unequal status ascribed to men and women in society, 56 per cent of the women who are were born into land-owning families, did not get a share of it. Only 69.4 per cent of the ever-married women got land from their in-laws, and of these, most were widows. Single women often face problems keeping their land and house secure from unscrupulous elements wanting to establish control over it.

Social security pensions only reach about a quarter of the respondents. This is far from adequate. Pension schemes have issues at both the level of policy and of implementation. The existing pension scheme does not take into account social security needs of separated and divorced women, of unmarried women, or of widows younger than 40 years. It is targeted to cover only BPL households, leaving out many of the poor.

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 three per cent reservation for women in Local Self Governance has created an opportunity for challenging and changing social norms.