New Delhi: For as long as she can remember, Kolkata-based Ruchhita Kazaria, 36 and never married, has known she would have to get a job. Two of her elder sisters started working right after school: “My father was clear that if we wanted to study beyond school, we would have to pay for it,” said Kazaria. “It’s not that he couldn’t afford it, but he said that as girls we had to learn to be financially independent.”
And so, at 18, Kazaria found herself working for a newspaper on a salary of Rs 3,500 a month, enough to pay for her college fees, commuting and the occasional movie ticket.
Indian families generally do not insist upon daughters earning their way through college. If anything, families frown upon women working outside the house and impose restrictions on this work as an ongoing nation-wide investigation (links to other parts in this series at the end of this story) by IndiaSpend finds.
At just 24%, according to the Economic Survey 2017-18, India’s female workforce participation is amongst the lowest in South Asia. In the decade to 2011, the year of the last census, 19.6 million women fell off the labour map, according to an April 2017 World Bank report.
The exception to the general trend of women leaving the workforce: Single women. Divorced or never married, widowed or abandoned, live in villages or cities, single women are expected to earn to support themselves and their children.
Currently, India has the largest number of single women in its history.
There was a 39% increase in the number of single women – widows, never married, divorced, abandoned -- from 51.2 million women in 2001 to 71.4 million in 2011, according to census data.
Not everyone agrees with the calculation, since the ‘never married’ category of the census takes into account all women aged 18 and above who are not married.
“But of course, most of them will marry, between the time they are 18 and, say, 30 or even up to 34,” said Ginny Shrivastava, founder of the Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghathan (ENSS), a network for single women in India. Still, even by this more realistic estimate, there are over 50 million single women in India.
There are, also, nearly three times as many widowed, separated and divorced women than there are men -- 46.5 million women for 13.9 million men.
For instance, 8% of all females in India were widows, while 2.5% males were widowers, according to research conducted by Martha Alter Chen of the Harvard Kennedy School, using data collected between 1991 and 1994. This is because, said Chen, only 9% of India’s widows ever remarry, unlike male widowers who are far more likely to marry again.
The unique Indian condition of being single
Being single in India is a uniquely female condition – and problem.
“For single women, the main issue is to be able to survive, and to be able to survive with dignity,” said social worker Parul Chaudhary who is associated with the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights -- a national platform for single women leaders from mass-based organisations with a presence of 12 states as of now.
Single women are forced to depend of somebody’s goodwill -- in-laws, parents, brothers and sisters-in-law -- just for a roof over their head or for their children to continue in school. “What single women want most,” said Chaudhary, is, “the need to feel they are in control of their lives.”
But, many are unskilled and end up doing hard labour that is poorly compensated, said Chaudhary. “For low-income single women, staying at home is not a choice. They have to go out and earn, often till they are advanced in age,” she said.
“The proportion of women working does increase sharply after the dissolution of their marriages,” said economist Jayati Ghosh. Regardless of the reasons why a marriage ends, women are more likely to end up in the labour market. As a group, single women have workforce participation rates that are well above the average, said Ghosh.
“Public policy in India has in general failed women (and young girls) who have experienced marital dissolution, by not providing them their basic rights and not ensuring either their economic security or their social stability,” write Jayati Ghosh and Nit Ranjan in a March 2017 paper, The Economic Effects of Marriage Dissolution on Women.
Using data collected by the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) and comparing it with women who were married in 2005 but divorced, separated or abandoned by 2011, Ghosh and Ranjan find that workforce participation rises for these women, from nearly 26% in 2005 to over 47% in 2011. Average workforce participation for women across India was estimated at 27% for 2011.
Yet, for some single women -- depending on where they are located on the socio-economic scale -- being able to follow a career track without being encumbered by husband and children can be liberating.
“Without exception, every one of the single women I interviewed for my book was employed,” said Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, a columnist on sexuality and gender and the author of Status Single: The Truth About Being a Single Woman in India published earlier this year.
Many of the middle class and upper middle class single women Kundu interviewed have at some point been what she calls “credit card wives”.
“They have financial security and access to the family wealth of their in-laws,” she said. But when the marriage dissolves either through the death of a husband, divorce or abandonment, the wives are pushed back to the workforce to support themselves and their children.
“Economic empowerment is the key to surviving as a single woman in this country,” said Kundu.
The widow’s woes
Like many of the other girls in Singhardi village in Giridih district, Jharkhand, Lilavati Devi was 14 when she married in 1991. Her first child, a boy, was born three years later and her second child, another boy, was a month old when her husband died “of a fever”.
Devi had only studied till the eighth grade. As a daily wage labourer, her husband had earned barely enough to keep the household going. There were no savings and nowhere to go. “My mother said I could stay with her, but she herself was a widow and my children and I just became a burden on her,” said Devi. “I just wanted to kill myself along with my children.”
The only employment opportunity to Devi was manual labour. It was that or starve.
Soon after she completed her 12th grade, Shanthala Mrutyunjaya had an arranged marriage in Bangalore to a man from her own conservative community. She had just turned 18. By the time she was 28, she had had two children, a girl aged eight and a boy who was six. Four months after her 10th wedding anniversary, her husband was killed in a road accident.
“I had no education, no work experience and no skills that qualified me for a job,” said Mrutyunjaya, 43. Moreover, her husband had left a pile business loans that had to be paid off.
A friend of a friend helped her get an interview for a job, but, as she said, “I didn’t even know how I should dress for the interview.” She didn’t get the job.
When she did finally did get get a job as a recruitment executive with an IT recruitment firm, Mrutyunjaya said she had to learn fast. Within a year she had been promoted to team leader with a better salary. Then her father was diagnosed with cancer, so she needed time off and so she quit.
When she got back to work, it was to start her own business, teaching English to children and soft-skills and personality development to adults.
Mrutyunjaya had already moved out of her in-law’s house and in with her parents, a decision that she said both sets of parents supported. Her in-laws continued to pay for her children’s education. They remain on good terms and at one stage, even suggested she remarry, offering to take in one of her children, while her parents could look after the other. She declined the offer.
“I was being looked after financially. Both my parents and in-laws helped me pay off my husband’s loans,” said Mrutyunjaya. “But I had other needs. I wanted my kids to wear good clothes, go to the mall. I wanted to be able to take a holiday, or out for a drink. I didn’t want to feel financially obligated to anyone for these expenses.”
“Earning my own money was my ticket to dignity,” said Mrutyunjaya.
Nirmal Chandel from Solan, Himachal Pradesh, had been married only four years when her husband died of a heart attack. She was 24, had no children, and -- like Mrutyunjaya but unlike most other widows in India -- had in-laws who were prepared to financially support her. But that support came at a price: Wear white, stay indoors and don’t expect to participate in rituals like festivals and weddings. “It was claustrophobic,” she said.
For a year, Chandel, now 53, lived the way her in-laws expected her to. Then her parents came and took her back home. “I needed something to do,” she said. The in-laws had told her that it was not acceptable in their family for a widow to be so independent as to go out to work. They would look after her financial needs.
Even though she didn’t need the money, she took a job at the accounts department of an NGO at a salary of Rs 560 a month. “I wanted to live apart from them. This job at least helped me move out,” she said.
For the next 16 years, Chandel stuck with the NGO, eventually earning as much as Rs 7,000 a month. “I’m single. Nobody depends on me,” she said. “But I recognize that I am vulnerable. Who will look after me if I fall ill? Who will take care of my medical expenses?”
All widows, said Chandel, are vulnerable. If they’re young, they worry about the education of their kids and other expenses. Sexual exploitation within families is common, she said. Older widows worry about who will take care of them after retirement and in old age. And everyone worries about finding a home.
“A single woman gets izzat only if she has land and a house in her name,” said Chandel.
A room of one’s own
Bachelor Girls, an hour-long documentary, on the battle single women (or ‘bachelor girls’, to use the term favoured by brokers, landlords and housing societies), began as a personal story of film maker Shikha Makan.
In 2004, Makan moved to Mumbai from Delhi to become a film-maker. “I was single then and had no idea how difficult it would be to find a place to live,” said Makan. Nobody wants to rent to single women.
“It’s very troubling for patriarchy to deal with women who migrate for work,” said Makan. “She is expected to either live with her father or her husband. A woman who leaves her father’s house in search of employment is instantly marked.”
Makan recalls the one night when she returned home after a particularly late work assignment. She requested a male colleague accompanying her in the taxi to drop her to her front door because she didn’t feel very safe.
“To my shock, the security guard called up the chairman of the housing society who arrived at 3 am and accused me of running some kind of racket,” she said.
Although Makan stood her ground, the battle-lines were drawn. A few days later, somebody scrawled her phone number on the elevator. She started getting calls, but nobody would speak. Her doorbell would be rung in the middle of the night, but there would be nobody there. “It was just easier to move out,” she said.
“Mumbai in many ways is considered to be the benchmark for safety but I thought that if this can happen to me, then what must it be like for other single women in this city and other cities?” she said. That is how Bachelor Girls was born.
For many single women, leaving smaller towns and parents and moving to Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore in search of a job and financial independence is in itself a revolutionary step.
Even in big cities single women are watched and monitored with security guards and neighbours acting as frontline moral guardians: Is there a man in the flat – never mind if he’s your brother. Were you playing loud music? What time do you come home?
Not every woman can withstand the scrutiny. One woman who Makan interviewed had come to Mumbai looking for work as an actor with television serials. She moved from being a paying guest (PG) to her own apartment. But everywhere the sermonising lectures, made worse for her because she was an actor, about late nights, boyfriends and drinking followed.
Finally she just gave up and went back to Baroda. “You are already fighting so many battles just to establish yourself at work. When you come home, you need to feel that you are in a safe space,” said Makan. "You cannot just keep fighting."
Now that Makan is married, she is respectfully called ‘madam’ by genuflecting security guards. “Having the tag of a husband made all the difference,” she laughed.
Single but not alone
Ginny Shrivastava met her husband at the University of Toronto where they were both studying in the 1970s. Three months after they married, they moved to India, which has been home since.
In the eighties, when Shrivastava first got involved with the women’s movement, the big-ticket issues were rape and dowry. “The women’s movement had not done anything special to bring widows and single women in from the margins,” she said. “And yet, going by the sheer numbers, something needed to be done.”
Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghathan was formed in 2000 as a “catalyst organization that believed in the strength of the people and did not have a welfare approach”, said Shrivastava. The organisation’s main challenges remain: to boost confidence and self-esteem. “The most important message is to not feel alone. We are an alternative family for single women,” she said.
ENSS has lobbied with the central government to include a separate section for single women in the draft national policy for women. “In order to enable single women to claim their rights and benefit from empowerment initiatives, society will have to change the perception of single women as being helpless, vulnerable women in need of welfare and protection,” said a statement issued by ENSS on the draft national policy for women.
The organisation wants resources and efforts so that single women can organize into mutual help groups to support each other in accessing rights and entitlements. “Single women can transform society if their potential is released,” said the statement.
“Society tells single women that they are weak,” said Shrivastava. “We are proof that we are not.”
This is the eleventh part in an ongoing nation-wide IndiaSpend investigation into India’s declining female labour force participation.
Read other stories in this series:
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on the gender issues confronting India.)
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