Single They May Be, But They Aren't Alone: Empowering Singlehood

Even in the 21st century, women have to fight for access to the most basic of human rights – including health, nutrition and education – and, of course, for a rightful place in society.

Priyanka Khullar
New Update
Single Women, Source: Women's Health Australia

Image Source: Women's Health Australia

A centuries-old value system, patriarchy continues to be rooted firmly in our society, with gender disparities being deeply ingrained in the entire socio-economic and cultural fabric. Patriarchal structures ensure that men dominate women everywhere – in personal and public spheres.

Women from vulnerable communities face compounded vulnerabilities, as patriarchy adds another element to the discrimination they face due to economic or social context. 

Patriarchal values prevail even in an age of progress as India aims to stand up as one of the world's largest growing economies. Even in the 21st century, women have to fight for access to the most basic of human rights – including health, nutrition and education – and, of course, for a rightful place in society.

Yes, a woman is even today seen as having an identity only under the shadow of her father, husband or son. In several instances, while male members control the family economy and property, women are denied property rights – marital and parental; their work is either underpaid or unpaid.

Why making space for single women to thrive is necessary. 

Further on, talking of the plight of single women, life has been and continues to be one of further struggle, humiliation and deprivation. This 73 million-strong demographic of single women, constituting 21% of the nation's female population, includes widowed, divorced, separated and never married women. In addition, are the "half widows" (in conflict-torn locations) whose husbands are missing and 'tiger widows' whose husbands are likely killed by tigers and whose bodies are not recovered.

It is clear, therefore, that single women are not a homogenous category. Beginning with the local diversities in which they are located, single women are found in several vulnerable contexts, so the issues they are burdened with are diverse too. For example, the problems of farm widows differ from those of the widows of fishermen who died at sea, and the issues of "half widows" in conflict-torn areas differ from those of the women who separate of choice.


The vulnerability of single women often continues or could be heightened due to property ownership. Landed or otherwise propertied women are at risk of being unable to access their right to property or being oppressed by individuals looking to seize the property of single women.

In women's struggle for survival, dignity, respect, safety and economic security, land and property rights play an essential role. However, social norms, customary practices and legislation do not allow women easy access and control over land and other productive resources. In many cases, there have been attempts to grab the property of single women by branding them as witches. Moreover, it is evident that when a woman's sexuality is not under control in a patriarchal world, efforts are made to desex her by branding her as a widow, witch or one with a "Burri nazar" or an "evil eye".

However, stigma, derision and disrespect are shared across the spectrum, which touches society's entire social, political and economic fabric. And unfortunately, the rights of single women are often lost in the larger question of women's rights in general when they should, in reality, be an integral yet distinctly visible part of the women's rights discourse.

What it takes to work with single women at ground zero

ActionAid Association has been working with single women for over two decades, organising and empowering them to claim their rights, entitlements and a life of dignity. The organisation's initial understanding of the plight of single women emerged in a somewhat unanticipated manner, out of their humanitarian intervention in response to the Super Cyclone in 1999 in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, and then the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.

We were on Ground Zero almost immediately after the 2001 quake to respond to those affected relief and rehabilitation needs. A disaster response collective titled 'Sneh Samuday' was formed, which, after some time, evolved into three verticals, with one of them dedicated towards the rights of single women. It was named 'Ekal Nari Shakti Manch', which later facilitated the formation of the National Forum for Single Women's Rights. Today, this forum is a formidable force supporting single women's causes.


Well, that was just the beginning. Since recognising the wide-ranging vulnerabilities of single women, we have been actively working in diverse contexts to enable them to have their rights and a life of dignity. Over the years, it has been in solidarity with the wives of farmers who died by suicide in Maharashtra, the wives of men who have disappeared in Kashmir, the landless single women in Odisha, the single fisherwomen in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the women branded as "witches" in Madhya Pradesh and several other states.

More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, single women were at the centre of our relief efforts and long-term interventions, including the ones aimed at strengthening their livelihoods.

Now more than ever, we need to pay close attention to the voices of single women. We need to recognise their unique needs, including their demands for access to land and property rights, social security, pension, skill-building opportunities, decent work and sustainable livelihoods. Also, we must strengthen the various programmes and policies that support single women and ensure effective implementation with the evolving times.

Empowering single women cannot be complete without addressing the social stigma and discrimination they face. So, let us strengthen our commitment to ensuring that single women are not left unseen or unheard. Today, let us all tell them they may be Single, but they are not alone.

Priyanka Khullar worked as Manager, Communications with ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the organisation.

Suggested reading: Why Destigmatising Menstruation, Reproductive Health Key to Achieve Health For All

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