Empowering Single Women: Paving the Path to Equitable Futures in India

Empowering Single Women:

Paving the Path to Equitable Futures in India

India Takes Strides Towards Gender Equity: A New Bill for Widows and Single Women

On the fifth of August 2022, Ms Supriya Sule, Member of Parliament of the 17th Lok Sabha, introduced a private members bill titled “The Protection of Rights of Widows and Single Women and Abolishment of Widowhood Practices Bill, 2022”.  The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill held that an “ecosystem of neglect leads to millions of widows and single women being pushed into poverty, unable to guarantee a healthy life for themselves and their dependent children” and thus sought to safeguard the rights of widows and single women and to work towards a more equitable, accepting, and progressive society for them.

The Bill represents another step in the movement, which goes back to the early years of social reform in India.

Legacy of Liberation: Centuries of Advocacy for Widows’ Rights in India

For centuries, Indian social reformers have fought for widows’ rights. The 19th century saw movements like widow remarriage challenging stigma. Efforts persisted to secure widows’ property rights. Raja Ram Mohan Roy urged government intervention, leading to the 1872 Special Marriage Act, granting divorce and inheritance rights. With independence, reformers continued battling discriminatory customs and improving conditions for widows. The Indian women’s movement pushed for equal rights, representation, and the dismantling of oppressive structures. Since the 1970s, feminist movements have sought to eradicate patriarchy.

Some decades ago, activists working on the issue realized that along with widows, a range of other women face similar vulnerabilities. In conflict-affected areas and areas where deaths due to animal-human encounters are endemic, unique nomenclatures have emerged: “half-widows” in Kashmir are wives of men who are missing and “tiger-widows” in the Sundarbans whose husbands probably have been killed by tigers, but no one has been able to recover their bodies. Due to the ambiguity surrounding the men’s disappearance, the wives are unable to access any social security scheme or government assistance.

Some women are separated, divorced, or abandoned by their spouses. There are other women who, out of choice or due to compelling circumstances, have never married, many of whom act as mothers or caregivers. A study carried out by ActionAid Association witch branding across five states of India found that single women who were separated or widowed were the most vulnerable group to witch branding.

From the experience of working with all these categories of women, who by choice or compulsion are and stay single, and for that reason face a unique set of challenges and vulnerabilities, activists argue for the recognition of a category of women who, for want of a better word, are called “Ekal Nari” or “Single Women”.

Single women are at high risk of sexual and gender-based violence. We must refine protection mechanisms for increased sensitivity and responsiveness. Swift trials for violent incidents and resolution of land disputes are imperative. We must ensure that local complaints committees are robust enough to safeguard single women from workplace harassment. Dedicated cells within Women’s Commissions are necessary. Addressing witch-branding requires effective state laws and national legislation for prevention, retribution, and survivor rehabilitation. Legal reforms are needed to eliminate socio-cultural and inheritance barriers to property ownership. Inheritance laws should ensure equal rights; in marriage, half ownership of marital property must be realized regardless of financial contribution, acknowledging women’s non-monetary contributions to the household.

In the last decade, some states have undertaken steps for the betterment of single women by announcing pensions and other tailored schemes for single women. For instance, Rajasthan has introduced the Ekal Nari Samman Pension Yojana, while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have implemented Single Women Pension Schemes. Tamil Nadu has established the Widow and Destitute Women Welfare Board to provide tailored services to widows, destitute, deserted, vulnerable, and unmarried women, recognizing their unique challenges. We need to widen the scope of these positive initiatives and amend all existing policies so that single women can avail themselves of all benefits with prioritization in existing programmes, including housing, education, skill training, loans, and jobs.

The Prime Minister of India’s commitment to focus on GYAN  – Garib, Yuva, Annadata and Nari- will genuinely pave the way for building a Viksit Bharat. The proviso needed is an additional focal point on the women who are the most vulnerable – single women.

In 21st-century India, it is of paramount importance that we ensure a dignified future for single women – including widowed, abandoned, divorced, or unmarried women. Recognizing their agency requires robust policies and institutional support. An inclusive national definition of single women is essential, encompassing various marital statuses. We must ensure special attention to impoverished single women, especially those from marginalized communities and those with children and dependents. Their intersecting vulnerabilities demand targeted welfare responses to reverse exclusions and discrimination that lead to harmful practices against single women. ActionAid Association has recently published a document drawing out such an agenda.

The desired end of social reform in India, which emerged with concern for widows, would be if every woman would feel empowered enough to know that though they are single, they are not alone!

Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director, Action Aid India.

Dipali Sharma work for ActionAid Association.

The article was first published in Dailyhunt as Towards Just Futures for Single Women of India‘ on May 9, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Mansi Garg, a researcher at IMPRI.

Authors

  • IMPRI Desk
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Sandeep Chachra

    Executive Director of ActionAid Association, the Co-Chair of the World Urban Campaign coordinated by UN-Habitat and the Editor, Agrarian South - Journal of Political Economy.

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