Home alone

WAKE-UP CALL

Home alone

It is shocking that single women continue to be treated with pity and suspicion. Newspapers are full of tragic stories of single women, who — forced off the radar owing to prejudice — have either fallen prey to penury or are languishing in nari niketans. The recent case of the Bahl sisters in Delhi only serves to highlight this fact.

Self-centred neighbours looked the other way and did not wish to “interfere” with the lives of these two single women.

Civil society and the government need to be much more sensitive and responsible towards single women and their needs. Specific interventions in this direction are urgently needed.

The Bahl sisters, Anuradha (44) and Sonali (41), both residents of Sector 29, Noida, lost their parents in the late nineties. Anuradha’s face was disfigured in the same road accident in which she lost her father.

The sisters lost their mother a few years later for she never did recover from the loss of her husband. At that time, Anuradha was a successful chartered accountant and Sonali worked with a private firm. A bitter twist of fate saw both the sisters lose their jobs in the wake of the recession. That is when their downward spiral began.

They, thankfully, did not have to pay rent as they stayed in their parents’ home. They had a younger brother whom they were very fond of. But property matters strained their relationship with him. In 2007, when their brother got married, constant fights between the girls and their sister-in-law saw their brother opting to stay separately in Sector 50, Noida.

There was hardly any communication between them after that.

Anuradha and Sonali started buckling under the pressure of unemployment, pending bills and penury. They suffered acute depression, which, doctors now say, worsened into psychosis. They became paranoid and stopped going out of the house. Sometimes, a neighbour would see one of the sisters at the window. The water and electricity connections to house were cut off.

Extreme starvation took a toll on Anuradha, who succumbed to multiple organ failure after the sisters were rescued by an NGO. Sonali, who has been reduced to a bag of bones, is undergoing treatment for acute depression at Noida’s Kailash Hospital.
 The National Commission for Women (NCW) has sought a comprehensive report on the case.

Yasmin Abrar, Acting Chairperson, NCW, says: “Civil society, the Residents’ Welfare Association and the police need to hang their heads in shame. Nobody, just nobody bothered to ring the doorbell at No. 136, Sector 29, Noida, knowing fully well that the water and electricity connections had been snapped off nearly four months ago. The RWA did not wonder how two human beings were surviving without water or electricity. Never mind if they never opened the door; never mind if they were single women. How could anybody in the neighbourhood even think of lighting their kitchen fires in the grisly shadow of impending death? Someone could have called an ambulance and whisked them off to medical help and attention.”

Dr Pearl Drego, a senior psychotherapist, observes that it’s time neighbourhoods took responsibility and the friends    of such women stepped in with timely help and support.
Abrar adds that there’s a dire need for “civil society to recognise its moral responsibility”.

She stresses the importance of increasing awareness among people about the rights and security of single women. She also calls for greater co-ordination between local authorities, residents’ welfare associations and civil society organisations, so that information is shared for a quick response to situations of this kind.

The tragic plight of  marginalised women, who have fallen off the map owing to adverse circumstances, poverty or lack of family support, cannot be overstressed. There is an urgent need to sensitise society at large towards the plight of such women.

Many career women, single and in senior positions at their workplace, have fallen prey to an insidious predator called ‘loneliness’. It leaves them broken and frustrated. A large number of such women also suffer acute depression. Having led a life of pride and dignity, they are reduced to pitiful shadows of their former selves.  

According to a University of Missouri study published late last year, although the number of single women has risen significantly in the United States, they continue to face biased and skewed attitudes and are constantly under pressure to conform to convention.
 The situation is no different in India which has, according to a 2001 census, more than 36 million single women — a figure, which social activists maintain, is “a gross underestimation”.

There have been some important attempts to build support networks, but much more work will have to go into this effort for change to happen.  

The tragedy that befell the Bahl sisters may be an extreme example. But it reflects, in a microcosm, the social pressures that prevent single women from leading productive, happy and secure lives.

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