Single but no longer silent

 When single women are organised and aware, they can collectively bring change to their lives, say activists. PIC getty imagesHum ekal sahi, par akeli nahi, Ab na darr ke rahe, Apni mann ki kahe, Zulm ab na sahe, Haq lekar rahe.

(‘We may be single, but we’re not alone, we no longer live in fear, we will not tolerate any torture, we will fight for our rights.’)

As these words reverberated in the air, the mood in the room of New Delhi’s Indian Social Institute suddenly changed. Over 150 single women who came to Delhi from far and wide earlier this month began to clap. As feet began to tap, personal tragedies were forgotten for the moment.

Whether they were deprived of their property after the death of their husbands, dubbed as witches and ostracised, stigmatised and thrown out of their homes after becoming infected by HIV by their husbands or abandoned, the women put aside their travails and sang songs of hope.

Tough times & tough women

“For many of these oppressed women, this is a new beginning. But just as gold becomes pure after being put through fire, oppression makes women stronger,” says long-time activist Kamla Bhasin. “The real issue is finding their own identity and fighting against beliefs that bring women down.”

It was to challenge these beliefs that single women from 14 states came together to launch the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights. It was also an occasion for many to share their stories and get their voices heard.

Kamla Devi (52) from district Gaya, Bihar, is hoping the Forum will be able to end her 13-year-old wait for justice.

“My husband was killed by Naxals 13 years ago. The police promised that the guilty would be punished and that my three children and I would receive Rs 1,00,000 as compensation. But they neither pursued the case nor got us the compensation. In fact, they declared him a Naxal. I have been trying hard to clear his name. But nobody listens to a poor, single woman,” she says.

According to Ginny Srivastav, one of leading forces behind the Forum, if single women are organised and aware, they can collectively bring change to their lives. “The organisation of single women into larger associations with knowledgeable leadership brings self-confidence to widowed, abandoned and unmarried women,” she adds.

Small victories do count

This was first seen nine years ago when Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) was formed in Rajasthan. The success of this 28,000-strong body in encouraging women to demand their rights inspired other states to form their own associations of single women. At present, eight states have such associations, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.

In Himachal Pradesh, the activism of these women has resulted in the Chief Minister agreeing to issue separate ration cards for single women; while in Rajasthan, pensions have been increased from Rs 125 to Rs 400 a month.

In Jharkhand, in the draft state policy on women, single women have been mentioned as a separate category. The associations have also been able to counsel the woman’s parents-in-law, helped to reclaim possession of land for their members, and filed cases against those hunting down women for being a dain (witch).

The power of ‘we’

However, this awakening has been limited to the states. “ There is a need to turn this into a national movement for the rights of single women so that action taken at the highest policy level,” says Ginny.

According to the 2001 census, there are 36 million single women in India. This is larger than the population of Canada. However, this number only includes legally divorced and separated women and widows. There is no official estimate of abandoned, deserted and unmarried women who continue to remain invisible and bereft of government entitlements and welfare schemes.

“It is very difficult to raise women’s issues in a patriarchal society. However, I think it is very necessary for this Forum to be formed so that it can fight for their rights. Being a single woman, I know every woman needs dignity, respect and a voice,” says Syeeda Hamid, Member, Planning Commission.

What the women seek is a life of dignity and respect. Hopefully, the government will listen to their voices and help prove that the women may be single but they are not alone.

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