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.

Need for Dignity, Respect, Voice

Widow in India"We will recommend that the poverty alleviation programs adopt new guidelines in order to ensure that single women get their rightful entitlements. Being a single woman, I know every woman needs dignity, respect and a voice," Hameed told Women’s eNews.

The commission is conducting a mid-term appraisal of the current plan for 2007-2012 and will be consulting with state ministers to review the steps taken by them to fulfil state obligations for gender empowerment, including single women, she says.

Srivastav, a 57-year-old Canadian who married an Indian activist, is a powerhouse in the movement. In 1970 she co-founded with her husband, Astha, a nongovernmental group focused on empowering marginalized people.

During that time she came to regard widows and other single women as some of the most vulnerable and oppressed in Rajasthan, which led her to form a team that mobilized widows in 25 of Rajasthan’s 32 districts to form the Association of Single Strong Women.

"We started by telling single women about their rights," Srivastav, who was widowed in 2003, told Women’s eNews. "Now, the leaders and members…spread the word across Rajasthan themselves: how to claim their rights to land and property, how to break with the traditions in their caste or community. We also train them in that and they, in turn, train others."

The Association of Single Strong Women claims a long record of achievement.

The group played a pivotal role in lobbying state legislators in 2007 to increase widow monthly pensions to $8 from $3.

It also helped secure drought-relief work for low-income single women that entitles them to manual labor at a minimum wage for as many as 100 days a year, considered crucial for low-income rural widows and other single women who are prevented by custom from migrating to find work.

The guaranteed wage, equal to that of men, helps them afford food, better nutrition and shelter. Local government statistics indicate women’s work force participation in the state rose to 69 percent of all women in 2008-09, from 67 percent in 2006-07.

Countrywide Advocacy

Rajasthan advocates have also developed a technique for helping single women hang on to inherited land that relatives–in defiance of federal law–often try to seize. After verifying that all the legal documents are in place and alerting police against any signs of family intimidation or seizures, advocates organize a ceremony where a land transfer certificate is given to a widow or daughter. The group invites family members, local officials, journalists and women’s groups to attend.

Srivastav says this approach often inhibits relatives who might otherwise take the woman’s property. If the land transfer ceremony doesn’t succeed, advocates also facilitate legal help in case the matter needs to go to court.

In Maharashtra, Saheli, a single women’s association for Muslim women in Mumbai, prevented 40-year-old Ruksana Sheikh from becoming homeless. Sheikh, who never married, faced constant verbal and physical abuse from her brothers to give up her right to their father’s house after his death. The organization aided her in registering a police complaint and facilitated legal aid, as well as helped her open a bank account and deposit the money she received after signing a deal for the house.

In Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous northern state, advocates have persuaded local officials to issue separate food ration cards to single women. In the past, the cards had gone to predominantly male heads of households, who then held sole power over a family’s access to grain, rice and sugar at subsidised rates.

In the tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand, advocates have helped single women charged of witchcraft to bring lawsuits. Widows or separated women are more likely to be labelled as witches, putting them at risk of abuse and death. About 700 Indian women were killed in the last three years under suspicion of being a witch, according to newspaper media reports.

Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India, and writes on development, gender and politics.

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