Choosing freedom over marriage

stand up for yourself

Choosing freedom over marriage

Ask any woman to describe marriage in a few words and she’s likely to say: romance, respect, understanding, support, care… The reality of this relationship for a sizeable number, unfortunately, is marred with violence, deceit, exploitation and a series of traumatic experiences.

A woman in India can’t really imagine her life without matrimony because the patriarchal social structures don’t allow her to, and even if she’s caught in a bad marriage, she finds it difficult to get away.

However, a woman can definitely lead a fulfilling life without a husband, if she chooses to – and Nagamma is a living proof.

Lesson well learnt

A barely-literate Dalit woman, Nagamma (45), has consciously stayed away from marriage even though she belongs to an impoverished, marginalised family from rural Karnataka, where women can’t escape tying the knot.

She shares, “By the time I was 14, both my parents had passed away. My older sisters were busy with their own families, so I had to raise my younger sister and brother. To make ends meet, I took up daily wage work.”

Why and when did she decide to remain single? She says, “When one of my older sisters started facing violence within her marriage, I decided to never get married. I didn’t want to be vulnerable to that kind of trauma. When she chose to leave her husband, I stood by her.”

The feisty Nagamma, based in Kollegal taluk in Chamrajanagar district, around 50 kilometres from Mysuru, has become quite the rights champion after linking up with Swaraj, an active network of grassroots social workers with members across 14 districts in the state. The organisation assists socio-economically disadvantaged children and women in availing their rights and entitlements and also reaches out to persons in distress. Nagamma has been working towards stopping child marriages in her area.

Facing backlash

According to her, be it for children or social workers like her, it’s really risky to stand up to long-held traditions and beliefs. Sometimes, these weddings are carried out at undisclosed locations and at odd hours so that there are no hurdles or opposition. Even as the local police and government officials support her, she and her colleagues are required to do a lot of follow-up and also ensure that the children or their supporters are not subject to any backlash.

Among the few girls whose weddings Nagamma and her colleagues have prevented is Bhavani (17). This courageous adolescent refused to get married to a 28-year-old from Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu even though her parents and relatives tried to force her.
Bhavani shares, “We live in a small home in a low income neighbourhood in southern Bengaluru. I am pursuing a diploma in electronics at an institute in Hosur. I am the first in my family to pursue higher education. While my parents and grandparents didn’t approve of my choices initially, they are now happy.”

She goes on, “My major regret is that I was not able to save the life of a girl who got killed during a fight with the man I had rejected after she was compelled to marry him.” When Nagamma sees Bhavani flourish, she feels good about the path she has chosen for herself.

Breaking free

While it’s rare to find a Nagamma, who has consciously and bravely stayed away from traditional matrimony, it’s also heartening to see a Geeta Shinde have the mettle to walk away from a bad marriage. A determined, visually impaired woman from Bengaluru, she seems much younger than her 55 years. She was keen to study further and get a job, instead marriage was forced on her way back in 1981 when she was just 20 years old. Geeta’s husband, who worked at a five-star hotel in Chennai, had suggested then that she do a beautician’s course. And after she completed the programme, she got a job at the same hotel as him.

Geeta gained a positive reputation for her abilities and diligence soon enough and was sought after by wealthy clients, that included well-known actors and prominent doctors and entrepreneurs in the city. As is usually the case, her husband was not happy with the attention and appreciation she received. He began to verbally and physically assault her and turned into an alcoholic. He was terminated after he was found drunk on the job.
Despite the trauma, Geeta continued on the job for the sake of running her household and raising their daughter. One morning, as she went out to fetch a bucket of water before leaving for work, he threw a bottle of acid on her. Luckily, she poured the water on herself, which prevented damage to her body below the neck. However, she lost her eyesight and it could not be restored in spite of sustained efforts over six months.

She got legally separated from her husband in 1988 and returned to Bengaluru with her daughter. On the insistence of a friend she learnt yoga and even successfully managed to demonstrate her skills as a beautician much to the amazement and appreciation of professional cosmetologists. She underwent training as a telephone operator and, at present, is employed with a public sector bank. In her spare time, she trains people in meditation voluntarily.

Shinde strongly believes that girl children need to be educated so that they do not feel the need to marry or stay in a marriage just to sustain themselves. “Do not try to realise your unfulfilled dreams through your children or force them to get married. It is our responsibility to clothe, feed, educate and look after our children but only to a certain age,” she advises.

Unfaithful husbands

Like Shinde, Manjula has managed to piece her life back together after a bad marriage. She was married at 22 but discovered that her husband was in a relationship with another woman and kept that up for nearly 15 years. Manjula, who has obtained a certificate in teaching from her hometown, Ballari, reveals, “When I asked him to choose between me and the other woman, he started to harass and hit me. He even tried to establish that I was mentally unstable. I managed to fend off those accusations and got a divorce and a reasonable sum of money as alimony. The people who assisted me in leaving my marital home helped me find accommodation in a temporary shelter run by an NGO. For a few days, I am now a teacher and my daughter and I are living in peace.”

Be it the never married Nagamma, who has become a crusader against child marriage, or the visually disabled Geeta, or Manjula, who walked out of their abusive marriage, they have shown a different, empowered face of the single life.

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