Today is International Women’s Day, when women achievements have been celebrated worldwide since 1911.
Yet, while women in the UK are able to remain unmarried and move freely - without prejudice or discrimination – many women in the world are still struggling for their basic rights and dignity. Indeed, discussions around the post-2015 agenda have highlighted the need for a specific goal to address gender inequality – an increasingly pressing issue - in order to drive progress on women’s rights. It is for this reason that this day is especially important for women, as it gives them the opportunity to stand up and raise their voices.
For women in India, life can be tough. Violence against women is at its peak, and it rests firmly on gender-based discrimination from birth in education, health and freedom. They just don’t have the same opportunities as men, and they’re often not aware of their potential. Many are forbidden from leaving the periphery of their house without a male chaperone, or are forced to leave education to get married. And for those without a husband, life is a constant battle.
Yet, recent international furore surrounding the rape of a student on a Delhi bus encouraged women to stand up, allowing them to fight for change. Street protests in Delhi, and across the country, demanding an end to violence against women since the attack in December have changed the way many see women in India, and it’s this determination and empowerment that I’ve been campaigning for with ENSS (Association of Empowered Single Women Living Alone) since its creation in 2005.
In Indian society, girls are seen as a burden – they’re costly and will eventually go to live with another family. Growing up with three sisters and one brother, this was evident throughout my childhood, before I married at 16. I was lucky though, my uncle, who lived in London and really valued education, helped me to continue my schooling. This isn’t an option for most married women.
Sadly, when the time came, I was unable to have children. People began to treat me differently, saying I was incomplete. Being a childless woman in India is a hugely stigmatising experience, and I felt low, and very isolated. I wondered why God had given me such a horrible life. My husband and I decided to leave our hometown and set up home elsewhere in Jharkhand state, where I started afresh.
I needed a new focus in my life, so was introduced by a friend to NBJK, an organisation that fought for people’s fundamental rights in Jharkhand and Bihar states. Immediately, my sorrow was replaced with a sense of purpose, and I put all my energy into helping empower people whose voices weren’t being heard.
In 1996, we set up SHARC, an organisation to empower single women in Jharkhand state and beyond. I learned about the problems faced by single women, and the isolating lives they lead in our patriarchal society. In contrast to the freedom and lack of judgement women can enjoy in British society, millions of women in India live with the stigma of being unmarried, widowed, or divorced. In India today, there are over 43 million widows over 18; over 22 million women over 18 who are divorced or separated; and more than 33 million unmarried or never married. Traditionally, these women are often refused rights to their own land, seen as undesirable by employers, and widows are repeatedly forced to remarry against their will.
Much later, in 2004, I met with a group in Rajasthan who had successfully lobbied for the rights of single women, and I was inspired. And following an event organised by them, where hundreds of single women came together to discuss their rights, ENSS was formed.
Today, ENSS is empowering single women to fight regressive mentality and social prejudices, which restrict their lives, lobbying for the formation of laws, principles and programs in order to improve the lives of single women. ENSS helped Talamay Soren, 27, whose husband abandoned her and their two children, forcing her to return to her parents’ home. Due to the stigma associated with being a single woman, Talamay found it really hard to find a job, and was unaware she could ask her husband for maintenance. But with ENSS’s support, she arranged for their case to be heard by the local council, and consequently, Talamay now receives child support.
Before, single women like Talamay weren’t aware of their rights, they felt they had no dignity. Today, they are leading ENSS, rising up against all types of inequalities and discrimination, making changes in our society that we never thought would be possible.
Following many lobbying successes, single women are now recognised as a vulnerable group, and are receiving more support from both local and national governments. Divorced women are now recognised on the national census; widows under 40 are entitled to a widow’s pension (which has increased from 200 Rupees to 400-500 Rupees); and single women are now given priority in recruitment.
Traditionally, women didn’t used to come out of the home, wouldn’t travel without their father or husband, and would never raise their voices. Today, however, they are travelling widely, making their own choices about their movements, and speaking out. This is a fantastic move forward.
Single women have also fought for their right to have an education – before this was unheard of, as a girl’s role was to be married. Education was shunned. But times are changing.
And even single women are getting involved in politics, with many elected to local councils. A few were uncontested in elections last year.
My dream is that a day will come when women will change the system. But this will take time, as we battle against deep-rooted traditional patriarchal society.
For now, single women in India will continue to fight for their rights, and one day things will change for good.
Dr. Binni, activist and co-founder of the organisation SHARC, and member of ENSS, who campaign for the rights of single women in India.
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