Kamal Pathik was only 16 when she got married. Tortured and eventually abandoned by her husband, she didn’t know where to go. That was until she came across the Association of Strong Women Alone (ASWA), Rajasthan, an organisation that works for single women. Pathik, now 45, from Zalawad district received no support from her parents. Alone with three sons, she started working on small jobs to earn a living. “People called me all sorts of dirty names, questioned my character for working out of home, but I knew I had to get out of the muck. I joined the ASWA in 1999 and have played an active role in trying to educate and help single women like me.”
To help women like Pathik, Ginny Srivastava, a Rajasthan-based activist started the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) in 2000. The study by ENSS released last week titled: Are We Forgotten Women?, focuses on the status of low-income single women in India. As per the 2001 census, there were more than 25 crore single women in India, which includes widowed, divorced and separated, and unmarried/never married women. These figures led the ENSS to conduct a survey on these women across six states — Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
Of the 386 respondents who took part in the survey, 46.3% do not have primary level education, with only 4% having received higher education. Almost 56% women belonging to land-owning families did not get any share in the same. In terms of income and livelihood, the results showed that although 89% of women were working, 75% of women survived on less than minimum wage and 90% were dependent on borrowings to make ends meet. To address this disparity, Srivastava said that the government needed to identify such single women as ‘poor’. “The government cannot rely on the charitable impulses of family and society to support the most vulnerable 10% of the entire female population of the country.”
Social security pensions reach only about a quarter of the respondents, which is far from adequate. Usha Kale from Maharashtra has been working with the association for the past seven years. Stuck in a bitter divorce battle, Kale left her abusive husband ten years ago and has been fighting since for her right in the property at her husband’s native village in Amravati, Maharashtra. Kale says the current pension given by the central government is paltry. “We get only Rs200 per month. What do you get in that much money? We’re fighting to increase the amount to Rs1,000. If that happens, we can expect an increase in the state pension amount as well,” says Kale. The Maharashtra government gives Rs400 as pension to single women without children and Rs700 to single women with children. Kale also emphasises on the lack of health facilities available in rural areas, which was also reflected in the survey. Almost 40% of the respondents reported some form of ill health. The percentage is high despite the fact that more than half the respondents are below the age of 45 years. These women are aware of the healthcare options, but the lack of proper government health facilities forces them to choose private options, which in turn are much more expensive. Mr Anand Kumar Bolimera, Country Director, Christian Aid emphasises on the fact that single women are not accounted in surveys that matter. “Single women are not considered as a family unit at all. This needs to change. They form a significant 10% of the entire population of the country, and cannot be ignored, ” says Bolimera.
Urban single women also need to be accounted for feels Dr Mary E John, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies. She says, “The larger question that needs to be asked here is how are the single ‘urban’ women also addressing this question, and how socially and emotionally independent they really are. We need to look at it from a larger perspective, clubbing urban and rural single women statistics.” John further adds that the need for “married” status for any woman to be acknowledged needs to change.