Abandoned women and widows break the silence

Fellowship stories

Lisa Smith

19 May 2016

The Single Women’s Conference 2016 was organised by our Quest Fellows (and others) to improve the government’s understanding about the issues that single women face.

On a hot February day, 1,200 women marched through the dusty streets of Tuljapur, a small town in Marathwada, India. Many of them lacked the vermilion mark of respect on their foreheads, the kumkum, and nearly all of them wore black bands over their mouths. It was a powerful demonstration against the lack of voice and respect faced by abandoned women and widows all over India.

These women came together for the Single Women's Conference 2016 – convened by Ekhal Mahila Sanghatna (the Single Women’s Confederation) as part of our Quest Fellowship Programme. They gathered to call upon the government to improve its understanding of the issues faced by single women, and to give them the tools to support themselves.

It gave a platform to raise up unheard voices, to share stories in solidarity, to find solutions and to support single women across India. Santosh Jadhav, a former mentor in the fellowship programme, described participants’ faces glowing with happiness: “they realised that they aren’t alone in their suffering, but they are together in this in hundreds; now that they have an organisation.” Once they removed their black bands from their mouths, “they were filled with an electrifying energy!”

The conference attracted representatives from government, NGOs, academic bodies (including the prestigious Tata Institute for Social Sciences), social activists and journalists. Our Quest Fellows were involved in mobilising participants and accompanying the single women’s groups from their villages to the venue.

Earlier this year I shared the story of Vinaya, one of our former Quest Fellows. As I learned then, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and marginalised women are systematically excluded from their communities due to societal pressures. Indeed, it is estimated that abandoned or widowed women make up around 20% of Maharashtra’s population. They are denied the right to generate their own livelihoods, and miss out on government support, simply because they lack a husband.

"Nobody asks for widowhood. Nobody wants their husband to die… My husband died, but I didn’t fall apart […]I did tremendous hard work, sometimes sacrificed my food, but made sure my children were taken care of. At their weddings, as I was not a married woman, I was considered unlucky. Living like dead when being alive is a kind of life which women shouldn’t go through” – Bhagyasgree Randive, former Quest Fellow

The Ekhal Mahila Sanghatna was launched in 2012 when several fellows, like Vinaya, were moved to start a regional campaign to tackle the challenges head-on. They surveyed over 100 villages, organised peer groups and identified potential leaders at different levels – village, block, district – to drive the campaign. These emerging grassroots leaders are now working alongside several Quest Fellows from our 2016 cohort.

Together, they’re making single women aware of their rights. They’re helping young widows and abandoned mothers to secure proof of identity, giving them guaranteed employment under government schemes. Showing them how to subscribe to pension schemes, access bank loans, restart their education, have an active voice in local governance. Perhaps remarry.

Since February, the Single Women’s Conference has sparked a number of similar, local events. These incredible women, including our fellows, continue to improve the social, economic and political status of abandoned women in communities across Marathwada.