Equality/Women’s Rights

India's Single Women Resist Stigma, Demand Rights

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Efforts to get rights and resources for single women have been gaining ground in India. Single women's organizations have formed in eight of the country's 28 states, and advocates are now looking to build political power at the national level.

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NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--When relatives barred Kamal Pathik from her son's wedding because the presence of widows is considered inauspicious, the Association of Single Strong Women stepped in. The group, willing to take on her family, advocates for single women and has been working in the state of Rajasthan since 2000.

"They draped a red scarf around me, put a bindi on my forehead and supported my wish to celebrate my son's wedding. Not only did I wear colorful clothes and adorn a bindi on my forehead, I also performed all the ceremonies that parents traditionally perform at their children's wedding," said Pathik.

The application of the bindi--a colorful beautification dot on the forehead that in many states indicates marital status--was in itself an act of advocacy. Traditionally, widows are supposed to be shorn of all embellishments and color and wear only white.

Single women in India outnumber the population of Canada. And these 36 million women, as counted by the 2001 census, only represent those who are legally divorced, separated and widowed.

There is no official estimate of abandoned, deserted and unmarried women, multitudes of whom live invisibly, often at the mercy of callous family customs and beyond the reach of public welfare.

Advocacy efforts have been gaining ground in India, as the Association of Single Strong Women in Rajasthan has spurred the formation of similar groups elsewhere.

In the past five years, single women's organizations have formed in seven other states: Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

Push for Federal Political Power

Fuelled by the success of the 58,000 women belonging to these groups, leaders of these state associations are now pushing for federal-level influence.

In October 2009, hundreds of single women from 14 of India's 28 states came together in New Delhi to protest the government's indifference.

Rejecting customary rehabilitation packages, such as helping widows to remarry and enter shelter homes, the women launched the National Forum for Single Women's Rights to pursue two basic goals: changing societal attitudes that contribute to the rejection of single women and lobbying nationally for the allocation of more federal resources for the group's efforts on behalf of widows, other single women and their children.

"There is a need to turn this into a national movement for the rights of single women so that action is taken at the highest policy level," said Ginny Srivastav, a leading organizer of the Association of Single Strong Women and one of the leaders of the effort to form a national group.

By building single women's political power at the national level, the group aims to spur advocacy for low-income single women in states where it currently doesn't exist.

The October gathering produced a charter of demands to the federal Department of Women and Child Development, including free health care for single women and their children, a right to work, rights to property in both natal and marital homes, a monthly social security pension of $22 and allotment of land to build a house.

Syeda Hameed, a member of the national planning commission that formulates the government's five-year plans, responded favorably.

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Single women in India outnumber the population of Canada. I'm completely blown away.