Single but not solitary: campaigning our way to progress

Fellowship stories

Sukanya Kar

18 October 2016

Amid the drums and chants and general public euphoria celebrating the Hindu goddess of Shakti (female power), I find myself reflecting that, on the one hand, divine feminine power is boisterously worshipped as the creator of the universe, while on the other, Indian women find themselves relegated to the margins of a male-dominated society. Deeply embedded within the national psyche, this dichotomy becomes apparent during such public festivities. And sometimes I feel a profound sense of disillusionment about gender rights and safety issues at a global level. I suspect these doubts are shared by a majority of women (and men) around the world.

With these thoughts in mind, I sit down to write about my experiences at a two-day workshop, held in Beed city, focused on the struggles of single women in Maharashtra.

Supported by CORO (under facilitation of Sujata Khandekar) and Samata Pratishthan (an NGO), the event was organised by a powerful new collective drawn from Beed, Latur and Osmanadab (three districts of Marathwada region). The group’s makeup is particularly special: Quest Fellows, mentors, SHG (self-help group) workers, ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and grassroots leaders. Crucially, it’s 80% single women.

Single women: on the margin of the margins

In India, where a woman’s primary task is still to get married, produce children (preferably male) and nurture the family, a single woman is an uncomfortable presence. Despite the Constitution of India granting women their right to gender equality, they continue to be conceptualised as men’s possessions – not as independent entities. As a daughter, a woman belongs to her father’s home; as a wife she belongs to her husband. She is expected to know, and remain within, these invisible yet unshakeable boundaries, which are dictated by tradition.

While most forums discuss women’s rights and violence against women, these Beed city workshop representatives were a sub-group: widows, abandoned females, divorcées and un-wed individuals who are above the customary marriage age.

They gathered to create a space to share experiences and give voice to a potent sense of agitation. And to try to understand – and break – their internal boundaries and create a force to advance their cause. Their goal is to reach out to disenfranchised single women in neighbouring communities: the women (in their thousands) who remain unconnected, cut-off from the vital support offered by SHGs and their outreach programmes.

The social complexities of rural India accentuate the lowly status of single women

Marathwada (the poorest of Maharashtra’s five regions) has a low female-to-male ratio, and many of its men migrate to nearby states in search of work. While absent, they start new families, thus leaving behind scores of deserted wives and children.

The situation for these abandoned women is exacerbated by the layers of injustice woven into India’s legal policies and social practices. Its Constitution may mandate gender equality, but non-discrimination does not curtail the traditional, religious laws that dictate most property rights in relation to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. And these laws hold sway across much of rural India. For example, most widows don’t receive their legal inheritance, and widows who own land are invariably asked to give up their rights by their husband’s family. Unmarried daughters are forbidden from inheriting their share of the property, while deserted women have to wait seven years before they are allowed to remarry. In fact remarriage under any circumstances is still stigmatised – especially in Hindu culture.

Coming together to drive progress

Against this backdrop, Sujata gently facilitated our workshop, until all of these issues (and more) emerged in the narratives of our group of initially shy (yet strong and vocal) women.

Workshop day 1: identity

We began with an ice-breaking exercise (conducted by Shubhangi, a Quest Fellow), to share our favourite colour, movie, social worker, politician and food, closely followed by a round of relaxed introductions. Amid much joyous confusion, we realised two things:

  • No one had ever asked the group anything like this before! It was the first chance for many of us to think about our views – a sudden realisation that we too have identities and opinions.
  • We discovered that we were here to be ourselves, to forget about home and hearth, but rather to explore our own desire to change our lives – and those of our sisterhood.

Sujata then led an exercise to contextualise our experience of abuse through the lens of a specific incident – with a focus on our relationship with the abuser. For some of us, this powerfully unravelled the invisible threads by which society controls our deeply personal experiences. For others, though, we were left with a vague awareness that the silence and attitudes around us help to perpetuate our anxieties and insecurities.

Workshop day 2: power dynamics

On day two, while one group observed, the rest of us, in pairs, identified ourselves either as a living being (in control) or an inanimate object (under control). This allowed us to explore a wide spectrum of ‘top down’ feelings and attitudes. These included confusion and inaction: “we don’t know what’s expected because we usually receive orders, rather than give them” and “we feel we shouldn’t cause pain to others”. There was a distinct feeling of superiority amongst those representing control, and a comforting feel good disposition amongst those given domestic chores by their ‘masters’. And amongst the observers, a palpable sense of helplessness.

We considered what would it take to rebalance these perspectives, touching upon the beliefs, roles and contexts in which they play out. This prompted a lively discussion on the social norms that dictate the aesthetic appearance of widowhood, and questions about feminist principles. Does empowerment mean copying/competing with men, or focusing on a shift in beliefs, thinking and capabilities? This led us to the paramount question: how and where can change begin?

Workshop finale: priorities and initiatives

As the event drew to a close, our attention turned to all-important action plans. Sujata asked us to gather, grouped by district, to list our three priority needs and matching initiatives. Each group produced identical burning topics: livelihood and financial security, social justice and inclusiveness, resilience and psychological empowerment.

To underpin our action plans, we agreed on the following initiatives:

  • Self: understand gender bias, redress it at an individual level (inculcate a rights-based approach).
  • Micro: build inclusive social spaces within homes, family, social occasions and programmes; become part of SHGs for economic and social empowerment; reach out to others.
  • Macro: campaign for single women’s rights awareness; press the government to take measures towards inclusive policies and laws; ensure implementation and effectiveness.

Taking our message to the top

So what about next steps, to capitalise on this momentum? We’ve set ourselves a tight deadline. In January 2015, we’re going to use the annual event celebrating the birthday of Savitrabai Phule (one of Maharashtra’s historic social reformers) to gather in force in front of the district and state authorities. We’ll present our written case for support, detailing specific issues affecting local community women – and our solutions. (This document must be underpinned by accurate stats from a data collection drive spanning our three districts: completed forms must be available, showing individuals’ names and responses.) The clock is ticking and surveys are underway, with CORO in charge.

The involvement of SHGs and ASHAs is critical. They figure out how to reach the furthest villages – because they all have to be included. It’s about mobilisation and finding women who are beyond the reach of NGOs and government schemes. We know that many of them lack resources and what limited income they receive must be spent on their families; they have no property rights and many of them – more than men, actually, work in the fields. They may lack means, but they do want to start vocational businesses, to gain economic empowerment. This is also a perfect opportunity to put single women in touch with each other, spread information about SHGs, and grow our networks organically. The scale of the task is huge, but its potential is inspiring. If one district contains nearly a thousand villages and each village draws in 40 women, it’s possible that we may reach many thousands of women.

And when the volunteers have done their work, we will use social pressure to deliver our message, loud and clear, to the authorities: “Here we are.”

Budding leadership

A few attendees really stood out during my time in Beed city. Seema who, at 22, was one of the youngest women present. An unskilled labourer, she sat inconspicuously, her thin frame barely noticeable. But when she spoke, she owned her voice and it held our attention. She told us calmly how she’d been married since the age of 14 (common in rural communities), a mother since 15, and was left widowed after three months of consummated marital bliss. Now, with her seven year-old son, she lives a more or less marginalised life – sleeping on the veranda of her in-laws’ house, cultivating their meagre patch of land. The revelation that she’d lost her husband to HIV-related complications evoked a wave of sympathy as she described how she’d been persecuted and shunned (despite having tested negative herself). One question, in particular, gives her sleepless nights: how can she protect her son while being honest with him about his father? Over the two days, we watched Seema become more confident as she absorbed the energy and warmth of those around her. Then there was Tanu who, with bejewelled eyes, declared with pride that she’d abandoned her abusive husband a good 10 years ago. She’s begun working with abandoned women – bolstering their confidence by sharing her own life experience. She tells them: “Perhaps we’re better off without our male counterparts (those who don’t know how to respect or honour their women!)” Sumedha, an unskilled labourer, mother of two and the sole breadwinner, is a one-woman army fighting male hierarchy. This means the men who, with a feudal perspective on women’s status in society, look down on Sumedha when she hires seasonal male workers to help on her farmland. Her community gossips about her ‘character’ – as they do for most single women who dare to live independently and enjoy a communal life.

A force for the future

As the role of organisations like Samata and CORO consolidates, their function as a regional support/resource network is central to this growing movement. I know that, at a national level, organisations such as Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghathan/The National Forum for Single Women (ENSS) are part of this drive towards social transformation. Whatever the outcome of our groundbreaking workshop, the potential for collaboration is surely huge. And I feel my spirits lifted by a sense of optimism when I consider what a formidable force we can create by our enthusiasm, passion and drive.

From marginalised majority to female power

As I left Beed and began my journey back to Mumbai, I pondered how to break free of the hypocritical traditions which dictate that women must suffer within the margins set out by men. These are the same men who sing hymns and make a fuss of their reverence for the goddess of symbolic power! I believe the answer lies in the responses to our final gathering, where we each summarised our experience with one word. Here they are – worthy mantras for our campaign: courage, focus, accountability, direction, inclusiveness, unity, self-confidence, happiness, encouragement, power – and, of course, love.