A Safe Haven for Single Women - Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan, Rajasthan
Historically, Rajasthan has been a feudal state where women have been accorded a very low social and economic status. The women are subjugated in several ways due to deeply entrenched patriarchal values in the society, an oppressive family institution, high rates of illiteracy and abject poverty. The burden of caste and gender systems with demeaning customs further undermine the status of women. Several of the practices prevalent even today such as sati, purdah, child marriage, female infanticide and even restrictions on widow remarriage reflect the subjugation that these women have been undergoing for generations.
Being a widow in India is humiliating and painful and has a far reaching impact on the mental and physical health of these women. For them life can be fraught with violence inflicted upon them by their families/in-laws/children, their properties snatched away, and worse still, they can be branded as witches. There are cases on record where witch hunting has led to these women being stoned to death or denied all forms of social inclusion.
There are very few social security measures for single women/widows and none at all for separated or abandoned women. The Government of India pension scheme for widows allocates a paltry sum of Rs. 400 as monthly stipend and some ashram ghars (old age homes) for shelter, but these are difficult to access because of bureaucratic obstacles or redtape. In this study, the term ‘single women’ refers to widows, divorcees, separated and abandoned women and elderly unmarried women.
Looking beyond such half-hearted measures, the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan6 (ENSS) or the Association of Strong Women Alone (ASWA) initiative has helped to empower single women by organizing them into collectives to fight for their rights and live a life of dignity. ENSS started as a branch of ASTHA which, in collaboration with another NGO, Hadoti Shilp Sansthan (Kota, Rajasthan), aimed to organize single women and sensitize them about their rights. The first ever widows’ convention was organized in Rajasthan in 1999 where 425 widows from 21 districts came together. At the convention, they identified and discussed their problems, sang and danced and found new courage, hope and joy in sisterhood. A follow-up committee was then formed consisting of widows from each district. This committee later became a state level committee and was called the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan.
According to a UNDP study (2008), 65 per cent of the widows are more than 60 years of age. Of these, only 28 per cent are eligible for pension but only 11 per cent actually receive it
Block level committees were formed of single women members of the association, with a total of three women per gram panchayat. Till date, there are 135 committees out of a total of 237 blocks in Rajasthan. Presently, there are 84 state level representatives from these committees and while the block committees represent specific village level issues, the role of the state level representatives is to lobby with the government regarding issues and concerns of single women. Since inception ENSS has seen a steady growth of membership in the different committees. The membership of ENSS has grown from a mere 425 in 1999 to 26,216 in December 2008 to nearly 45,000 in June 2014. The success of the strategies of ENSS has led to the formation and strengthening of similar organisations in other states as well. ENSS believes that if these women organize themselves they can form a ‘critical mass’ that is strong enough to bring about changes in state policy, laws, customs and the general social fabric. ENSS contests the gender stereotypes that have marred the society for generations and instils confidence in women to be their own agents of change.
The ENSS works through a three-pronged approach, namely:
- Increasing its membership base: Meetings of single women are organised with prior information through the local NGOs and grassroots workers like the Anganwadi worker and the problems of single women are discussed. The women are encouraged to become members by paying an annual membership fee of Rs. 10 or Rs. 101 for life membership.
- Dealing with social issues directly at the local level: The members bring the problems to the block committees who address each ‘case’ – ranging from witch hunting to land grabbing to even counselling the sons and daughters-in-law – to improve the quality of life of these single women and so that they are treated with respect and dignity.
- Taking up entitlement issues directly with the government administration: The state level committees work on the implementation of government schemes, from identifying lacunae and asking for redressal to lobbying for new policy directives.
ENSS also brings out a newsletter called Ekal Nari Ki Awaz or the Voice of Single Woman. This newsletter contains information regarding meetings and conventions organized by ENSS chapters. It also records inspiring stories of women who have fought successfully to get their land rights, facilitated by the sangathans. In addition, it carries articles on single women who have emerged as role models for other members of the organization. This newsletter publicizes ENSS activities, serves as an advocacy and lobbying tool and has shown the way to many a distraught woman to approach ENSS for help.
Core Intervention areas of the ENSS
Right to human dignity:
Helps to break social norms that are demeaning for single women, including dress codes and food restrictions. For example, during their conventions the women adorn themselves with henna and bindis, sing and dance and celebrate their sisterhood.
Right to property:
Helps women reclaim land and property that has been forcibly taken away from them and fight for the right to own land and property.
Right to livelihood:
Builds capacity and improves access of women to various government schemes including MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), pension schemes, BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards etc.
Right to education:
Helps the children of single women to access free educational facilities Right to health: Helps lobby for health cards and cashless insurance for single women.
Right to political participation:
Encourages its members to vote and stand for election to positions of local governance. Organizes training programs for members on topics ranging from gender sensitive budgeting to leadership workshops.
ENSS has fostered successful partnerships across the country to expand and help other states build single women associations or collectives. In 2005, ENSS helped Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand to form ENSS platforms, followed by Gujarat. ENSS Jharkhand helped to set up ENSS Bihar and ENSS Punjab was helped by ENSS Himachal Pradesh. In October 2009, Rashtriya Ekal Nari Adhikar Manch (National Body for the Rights of Single Women) was formed with a view to further the cause of single women – helping them put forward their demands, take care of each other and bring about social change to help them live a life of dignity. As of October 2013 the national body had 87,462 members representing six states across the country.
The story of Kanku Bai
Kanku Bai, aged 55 years, comes from a small village called Bhuria Khera, tehsil Beawar in Ajmer District. She was educated till class 8 but was married at age 13 to an older, illiterate man who was a small farmer. Her husband was an alcoholic and his demands for money forced the family to sell all their lands and property. She worked hard to bring up her five children by selling vegetables in the market.
Known for her honesty and hard work, Kanku Bai was elected village sarpanch (head) in 1995. In 1996 her husband passed away leaving the family in penury. Kanku Bai filed a case against the person to whom their land had been mortgaged but due to the complexities of the legal system, could not reclaim the land that was rightfully hers.
In 2004 she joined ENSS where she found courage, knowledge, support and an extended family. She now helps other women in difficult circumstances to claim their rights. Her self-esteem has grown tremendously and she talks confidently to the government officials and police authorities. She fondly recalls the case of Lad Bai whose land was taken away by her brothers-in-law while she was given a paltry amount of food grain in return. Kanku Bai took up the case and was able to mobilize the entire village community to pressurize the in-laws to return Lad Bai’s share of the property to her.
Kanku Bai believes that if she had joined ENSS earlier she might have been able to reclaim her property. She says, “Today, after so many years, my work is recognised; the police officers answer my phone calls and talk to me with respect. When I accompany somebody to the police station, the officers on duty attend to us immediately and take prompt action.”
However, Kanku Bai holds firm to her resolve to work for the issues and concerns of single women. Presently, she heads the ENSS Rajasthan.
Women’s Empowerment Day
ENSS celebrates Women’s Empowerment Day on June 1 every year. Members from various committees get together, to deliberate on their progress and take collective decisions on issues that concern women. The state committee members also draw up a charter of demands that is put up to the government officials.
In June 2014, to commemorate 10 years of its existence, ENSS celebrated Women’s Empowerment Day at Jaipur, Rajasthan. Nearly 500 women from all over Rajasthan and some from outside the state gathered together to express their joy and solidarity. A charter of demands was drawn up and presented to the Government of Rajasthan.
Challenges and limitations
As mentioned earlier, in Rajasthan, gender discriminatory norms and customs have been ingrained into the social fabric. To break down these deep-rooted patriarchal customs is probably the biggest challenge that ENSS faces today. It is still hard for many of the villagers to accept the change that ENSS is trying to bring about in mainstreaming the rights of single women.
- An association of single women like the ENSS can be a powerful body to lobby for policy change and change social mores so as to help single women claim their right to a life of dignity.
- Addressing the concerns of widows as well as other single women has given ENSS a broad base. It has resulted in a wider outreach. Developing good leaders is also given a lot of importance. The women who get to hold positions of leadership are strongly urged to become literate.
- The ENSS initiative has found a broad base due to their innovative and scalable model. The strategies described above have the potential to be adapted to other parts of the country to ensure that single women’s voices are heard and they can claim their rights.
ENSS Charter of Demands, 2014
- Raise the pension of widows and single women from Rs 500 to Rs 2500.
- Immediate and strong enforcement of Rajasthan Women’s (Prevention and Protection from Atrocities) Act
- Under the Rajasthan Skill Development Mission, preference to be given to single women in vocational training programs and raise the age bracket limits from 16 to 35 years of age to 16 to 50 years.
- Support for wedding expenses of daughters of single women to be raised from 10,000 to 15,000. This facility must also be extended to daughters of abandoned and divorced women.
- Low cost (Public Distribution System) ration to be made available to all irrespective of any Above Poverty line (APL) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) restrictions.