About 30 years ago, Sarju Bai, a resident of Lohagarh in Rajasthan, lost her husband to chronic alcoholism. Sarju, a mother of four, was merely 25 then. Uneducated and unskilled for decent livelihood options, she resorted to menial jobs and daily-wage work to feed her family. Having faced the struggle of an uneducated and underprivileged single woman trying to battle economic and social agonies, she decided to sensitize the society towards the apathy single women like her who are either unmarried, widowed, abandoned or divorced are forced to endure.
“When I became a widow my community was such that we didn’t let widowed women come out of the house for a year which is what I also practiced. We didn’t have toilets in our houses back then and yet we weren’t even allowed to go out to ease ourselves. women would only let us out during the night when no one could see us. Even thinking of going to a marriage was looked down upon. In fact, I have not participated in many rituals in my own daughters’ weddings because I am a widow,” Sarju reveals during a conversation with SheThePeople.TV. She recounts that widows were considered a curse, whom, if any person looks at will be doomed.
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She practiced all the customs associated with being a widow for ten years until 1999 when she came to know about a single women’s meet in her village block which she happened to attend. It was here that she gathered that she was being deprived of her fundamental rights. “I completely changed after becoming a part of the collective. I got to know that not only can I stand up for myself because now I have a sisterhood that will support me but also that I can also lend a helping hand to other single women who aren’t a part of it.”
Today, Sarju helps other single women in dealing with legal fights and social dogmas. She proudly confirms her financial literacy and the fact that she needs no help in dealing with bank officials, something women in rural India dread.
“We have one life and just because we lose our partner doesn’t make us a lesser or weaker person. We must reach out to solidarity groups and empower ourselves to live happily,” Sarju asserts, sending out a strong message to over 40 million widowed women.
According to Census 2011, there are 50 million-plus single women in India, who constitute 8.6 percent of the total female population in India. Single women is an umbrella term for all those women who choose not to get married, are divorced or separated from their husbands, or are widowed.
Surprisingly, according to Census 2011, there are over four million women who are above the age of 35 and never got married. One of them is Sashi Patel from Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. The 42-year-old former councillor of her village’s ward number-15 claims that she lost her father at a very young age. She and her siblings were raised single-handedly by her mother, who not only ensured good education for her children but also got them married on her own( still a big deal in villages and towns in India). Seeing her mother manage everything so smoothly against the social conventions, she never felt the need to get married.
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My mother and my siblings never forced me to get married. Since I became a social activist at the age of 18 or 19, and as I got closer to serving for human rights causes in my community, I went farther from the idea of getting married,” she tells us.
On pestering her if the society and her relatives didn’t force to enter marriage, she says, “Whoever asks me to get married, I ask them back if they are happy in their marriage and almost always, I was faced with silence. This gave me a chance to further ask them, how can they ask me to get married if they aren’t happy themselves?”
Shashi is one of those few lucky ones who actually found support from her family in her decision of not marrying—and normalizing singlehood. In fact not marrying out worked really well for her. People in her village believed that singlehood coupled with dedication towards social work made her a perfect candidate to contest the municipality ward elections. They were right. Shashi won the election and became a councillor from Mandla’s Sardar Patel Ward No. 15 in 2012.
After becoming a councillor, she fought many battles to bring better facilities in her area right from filing a case to build Anganwadi Centre in the Najul (government land) in her ward to building colony roads, the total budget for which was close to two crores rupees.
“It was a big thing for us since before that we never had pucca roads and since municipal budget is limited, we had to get our own budget. Then we proposed it to Shivraj Chauhan, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh at that time. He also helped us by approving the budget and that’s when we got our pucca roads,” Shashi recollects with pride on her face.
Apart from these big projects, she also helped people in her ward get ration cards etc.
“It was because people started to get to know my work, they started to support me. They say that since I am a single woman I can go to any extent for justice because I don’t carry the baggage of raising a family,” Shashi says.
Talking about women like her who choose to stay single and the society’s treatment of them, Shashi notes, “Women are capable of anything if they are able to find their strength and most of the time, they have to find it within and in the support from their family. In our society, patriarchy begins from our own families because whatever women want to do, we are stopped and caged at various points in our lives within our own families. This patriarchy that begins from our houses seeps in to society and it is the biggest evil of modern times.”
Both Shashi and Sarju are part of the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights. They work towards mobilizing and empowering other single women in their communities in their respective states. The forum currently has its foothold in 10 states and one Union Territory. While Shashi empowered herself with education and the work she did around women’s rights, Sarju’s outlook towards life changed when she started to communicate with the forum and started to work for it. Today, she earns Rs. 3000 per month for her work for the forum where she covers two blocks comprising of 10 Panchayats.
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“We have one life and just because we lose our partner doesn’t make us a lesser or weaker person. We must reach out to solidarity groups and empower ourselves to live happily,”
Ginny Srivastava, founding member and general secretary of the forum, says that she has been a part of the women’s movement in India for four decades now. “I was born in Canada but I came to Udaipur, Rajasthan in the 70s after I married my husband. It was in the 80s that I started working for the women’s movement in India and after a decade I started to see a gap that the single women of our country remain completely unrepresented. I felt that I should start a collective to bring all the single women of the country under one collective so they can fight for their own rights. Today all the states that are connected to the forum have their own independent state forums. They fight for their own rights and are creating their own unity.”
Being a woman is anyway a bane in a patriarchal society and then being a single woman works as dual marginalization. In a country where the population of single women alone could sum up as the 29th most populous nation in the world, ahead of South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and many more, we need more initiatives to help empower these women.
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