Discriminated against and denied their rights, single women in Himachal Pradesh fight for their cause

Ramkali and Deepa are two amongst the 25 single status women who won panchayat elections in Himachal Pradesh. Deepa is a Pradhan of the Soldha gram panchayat of Bilaspur district, while Ramkali is deputy Pradhan of Surajpur gram panchayat.

Nirmal Chandel who was widowed three years after her marriage, is State coordinator and president of the National Forum of Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan. Though she unsuccessfully fought panchayat elections, today she is spearheading the movement both at the State and the national level. Around 89 members of the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) have contested elections in the State so far.

Cultivating leadership qualities to empower single women is among the main objectives of ENSS that has not only encouraged the women to fight elections for political empowerment at the grass roots level, but also made the organisation a powerful pressure group that lobbies for single women’s rights and includes their interests in policies and programmes of the government. ENSS HP is supported by voluntary organisation SUTRA.

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The State organisation has more than 11,000 registered members.

Giving her own example, Nirmal says that women who have lost their husbands in many of the rural areas are still not allowed to wear colourful clothes, not allowed to eat non vegetarian food and many of these women face sexual harassment.”

The organization has lobbied for increased pension to single women in the State and also for a hike in the financial assistance for the upbringing and education of their children. Under the Mother Teresa scheme in HP, children of widows and divorcees get Rs 3000 per child per year till they attain the age of 18 years.

The sangathan helps women to become economically independent by training them in various occupations and equipping them to fight against discrimination in society.

“While divorcees and widows get pensions or other benefits, what about the women whose divorce cases keep pending in courts for decades,” asks Nirmal, quoting the recent case of a woman whose husband decided to become a sadhu and neither her parents nor her in-laws were willing to support her. The sangathan has demanded that all such women should also get pension after a period of three years. Sources in the Women and Child Development department of the State say a serious thought is being given to the issue.

Nirmal says that many of the single women who are forced to live with their in-laws or parents as they have nowhere else to go, suffer humiliation and discrimination on a daily basis. She says that these women should get separate ration cards. Also, the income of their family should not be included for any benefits under welfare schemes.

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As Pradhan of the Soldha gram panchayat, gutsy Deepa who had married a physically challenged person of a different caste says that she will never ever allow any kind of discrimination against women and ensure justice to them. Forty three year-old Deepa who lost her husband in 2009 says she is determined to work for the overall development of her gram panchyat.

ENSS was first set up in Rajasthan and now has wings in eight States. Efforts are on to set up ENSS in other states as well.

In 2010, HP ENSS won the Ashoka’s Change makers Award for successfully enabling all 35 single women in Tikri village of Baijanth block to access government schemes.