'It’s not as simple as providing us with some cash'
A monthly pension of Rs 200 is all that a widow gets, while unmarried and divorced women are mostly deprived of government support. Being a single woman in India means being legally invisible, reveals a new report
A widow in Bihar gets Rs 200 as a monthly pension. In Gujarat and Rajasthan she would get Rs 500, in Jharkhand Rs 400 and in Himachal Pradesh Rs 330. For many women across India, this meagre amount, which is often irregular, is the only source of income.
Single women, broadly defined as unmarried, widowed, separated and legally divorced, are usually the most vulnerable section of society especially if they come from a low-income group. A recent report titled Are We Forgotten Women? released by the National Forum for Single Women's Rights looks at the challenges of being a single women in present-day India. The report that surveyed 386 respondents across six states—Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan—was released here on Tuesday.
The survey sample was representative of all castes and communities in the region with the number of tribal Muslim and Dalit women surveyed being higher in the sample than their demographic proportion in the population of India.
Susheela, from Udaipur, Rajasthan, was widowed at 22. Rejected by her maternal family and her in-laws, she is now in her 60s and has stayed afloat doing odd jobs, tailoring and seeking help from NGOs. Susheela is a typical example of what happens to single women who don’t have the support of their families. " A widowed woman is suddenly left financially responsible for her children, often has to pay off her husband’s debts and to make things worse, she is stigmatised by her family,” said Susheela.
There are superstitions, for instance, that single women are witches and that they bring bad luck to the villages they live in—droughts, famines etc. In some villages, it is still considered inauspicious to see a widow first thing in the morning.
As the report outlines, the key challenges for single women invariably revolves around the following:
Housing: After separation/divorce/widowhood, women often don’t have a place to live in. Forty per cent of the widows surveyed lost access to their marital homes. Separated women who don’t have legal documents to prove their divorce have even fewer rights. Only 12.5 per cent availed government-housing schemes such as the Indira Awaas Tojana. Similarly, transfer of land ownership documents is almost impossible because women are never recognised as heads of families.
Social security or pension schemes: Such schemes only reached a quarter of the respondents. Divorced, unmarried and widowed women younger than 40 years of age are rarely taken into account for any social security schemes run by the government.
Maintenance and custody: Out of 23.4 per cent of the women who had applied for maintenance, 23.1 per cent received help. That makes only nine women out of all the women surveyed. The question of maintenance and custody also depends largely on the lack of knowledge about these schemes. Most single women seem to be unaware or lack the courage to claim their dues.
What makes economically weak single women especially vulnerable is obviously related to issues of stigma, s*xual exploitation and presumably lower levels of education. This makes it harder for them to become financially independent. As one journalist asked, why were these women complaining about the lack of government schemes instead of empowering themselves by developing cottage industries or finding jobs? The answer is not simple. Stepping out of their homes into a patriarchal society that considers them inauspicious and/or heretic and making a living is not an easy task. It is social and psychological realities that are subversive. Economics only plays a role when these can be overcome.
In Gujarat, for example, the Vidhva Sahay and Talim Yojna scheme is the only scheme of the kind benefiting widowed women between the ages of 18 and 40. Under the Manav Garima Yojna, which has schemes for widowed women, Rs 3000 is given on a monthly basis to women to develop livelihood skills. Additionally, women between ages 18 and 60 are given Rs 500 and Rs 80 per child for two children.
Hansa, 40, from Gujarat sums it up best. “So of course, we work. We set up a cottage industry. But we need to market our products in markets that will buy it. An industry needs many workers for it to be viable. It’s not as simple as providing us with some cash,” she said.