People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 39

September 27, 2009



Their Fight is for Dignity, Respect, Rights


                                                                   U Vasuki


IN Tamilnadu, the All India Democratic Women�s Association (AIDWA) has been taking up the issues of single women at various levels for the last few years. This year, it has been identified as a thrust area. This led to a survey with a sample of 1586 single women in 10 districts; the survey prepared the ground for district level conventions of single women and finally culminated in a state level convention at Rajapalayam in Virudhunagar district.




As many as 59 per cent of those covered under the survey are the persons who have lost their spouses and 38 per cent are deserted, divorced or separated. Three per cent are unmarried or deserted without marriage. We also met very young women, and some of them had got married at the age of 15. About 55 per cent are less than 40 years old. As far as the social composition is concerned, 25 per cent are from the SC/ST groups, 66 per cent from the BC/MBC, and 3 per cent are from the OC. Minorities comprised 13 per cent.

Of the respondents, 43 per cent are illiterate. Only 4 per cent are graduates, 18 per cent studied up to fifth standard, 25 per cent studied from sixth to tenth and 7 per cent have had completed the plus 2 stage.

Those who have lost their spouses listed out the reasons for the deaths. It ranged from natural death to suicides and murders: 8 per cent deaths were natural, 3 per cent due to suicide and 1 per cent due to murders, 14 per cent due to accidents, 35 per cent due to diseases and 7 per cent due to liquor addiction. In Villupuram district, a few deaths were due to AIDS also. Since it is a rural district, there are people who migrate for jobs, return some time and infect their wives with AIDS which they have contracted during migration. In Coimbatore, heart attacks caused a sizeable number of deaths.

Separation is largely due to liquor addiction, dowry and  domestic violence. Illicit relationships are the next main reason.

When it comes to entitlements, those who have not received maintenance are a whopping 84 per cent though there are adequate laws in the statute book. Many of the women and their in-laws were not from the propertied classes and so the question of a share in property did not arise in a number of cases. About 68 per cent are employed in some way or another and 20 per cent survive with the help from their children. About 19 per cent live in joint families with parents or in-laws and 46 per cent with the families of their sons or daughters. About 12 per cent live alone with their minor children.




Many of the district conventions became weeping sessions. The plight and the problems of single women are too many, and many of the participants broke down while narrating their woes. The issues can be broadly classified into economic, social, cultural, health related, sexual and legal categories.

Many spoke on the cultural problems which they dare not express a few years back. Some 49 per cent of those covered by the survey felt that they are shunned on auspicious occasions; 16 per cent said they themselves do not go to such functions for fear of humiliation. It was reported that if a provision store is run by a widow or a separated woman, people would not buy groceries from there for auspicious occasions. Many delegates wondered as to why they are restrained from using flowers and kunkum which they start using even before marriage. A delegate from south Chennai raised a very practical issue: �We buy colourful and bright sarees and keep them during the lifetime of the spouse. What can I do with them once he has passed away? Can we anticipate their loss and start buying dull-coloured sarees?� A few delegates lamented that they are not allowed to be involved in any rituals even during their own children�s wedding. An elderly delegate from Cuddalore said only four-legged cats are considered inauspicious if they cross us when we go to a shubh (auspicious) event. But the fact is that some human beings are being equated to those cats, which is highly deplorable.

The teleserials show in enormous detail how a widow is stripped of her mangal sutra and other auspicious symbols, and justify them. Tamil cinema too is no different in this regard, and exceptions are very rare. Though widow remarriage is legally allowed, society still frowns upon it. Many of the surveyed women expressed their disapproval for remarriage. Apart from cultural factors, having children or difficulty in locating a good match were also cited

�Being a single woman is construed as an invitation for sexual advances,� said a delegate. A young woman from Chennai spoke about how a financier, whom she approached for investment for a business after separation, tried to take advantage of her situation. Since she rejected his advances, he went to the extent of filing false cases against her in various police stations. He even complained against the AIDWA leader who intervened in this case. She appreciated our intervention and explained how it transformed her. But many others declined to share their problems on this aspect. A recent survey by Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai found that 80 per cent of widows covered by the survey were sexually harassed at their workplaces. A delegate from Sivagangai said that there are construction workers who are single but wear a mangal sutra at the work site only to avoid harassment.

Generally, many complaints of domestic violence were articulated. On this, a young delegate revealed a horror story --- literally. Her husband, who is an IPS cadre in Jammu & Kashmir, cheated and harassed her beyond imagination. Since he is alleged to be close to a minister in Tamilnadu, no FIR has been filed so far.

There is an increase in the instances of a male deserting a female after impregnating her under the false promise of marriage. A separate law was demanded by the victims.




On the economic issues, many were forthcoming. Even those who work in an unorganised sector declared proudly that they are able to educate the children. A few others were apprehensive due to poverty. Single women commonly encounter problems in getting ration cards. Gandhimathy, panchayat president at Dharmapatti in Sivagangai district said, �150 ration cards were seized by the officials in my panchayat as bogus cards and cancelled. Out of this, 50 belonged to single women. Even after showing documentary proof that they are genuine, the cards were not returned.� One third of the women in our survey complained of not getting a ration card. In many villages, one does not get a job card under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) if she does not have a ration card. Moreover, single women are not considered a separate family as per the NREGA rules and not given 100 days of work separately. Under the right to information, the state government disclosed that families are such considered only on the basis of ration cards. This is totally against the legislation.

The condition of the elderly single women is pathetic. Many are forced to work for survival even at a very late age.

Becoming single may be a woman�s private misfortune. At the same time, however, this brings out a generality which requires state intervention. Though good welfare schemes are available in the state, the implementation has been very poor. As many as 81 per cent of those surveyed disclosed that they are not getting any benefit. Now that all welfare schemes are linked to the poverty line, many would continue to lose out unless it is defined realistically. This will bring a tremendous pressure on single women in running the families.

Many complained of mental depression, exhaustion, tension and BP related problems. Some responded to the survey in a sad manner --- they would lock the door and weep often during the question-answer session. A few would beat up their children to vent out their anger and frustration. Malnutrition is another big problem facing the single women. This is due to neglect by themselves or by the family. The second National Family Health Survey (NFHS-II, 1998-99) states that widows get three times more asthma than others.

The government�s neo-liberal policies are causing havoc to the life of single women since they are the most vulnerable. As domestic industries like match production and garment manufacturing were affected due to the global recession, many single women who depended on these industries for livelihood, literally became paupers.

Now the food security act envisaged by the central government is seeking to cut down the BPL list instead of expanding it. On the contrary, the Supreme Court has already instructed the central and state governments to include more sections in this list. The Kerala government has decided to bring in more people under this category so that they would be entitled to the benefits. But, meeting recently, the central Planning Commission has decided to cut down the subsidy on kerosene, cooking gas and fertilisers. It has given a green signal for disinvestment of the public sector undertakings. Compassionate recruitment has been almost cancelled. All such policy directions would throw the single women off the cliff.




Speaking at the convention, former AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat, MP, said that one fourth of the families in the country are women headed families and that there are 3.4 crore widows. She criticised the government policies for not reflecting any understanding of this reality. She appealed to the AIDWA units to make visible this oppression, pain and agony implicit in their conditions. Changes would come only if the crime is made visible. She explained how the victims of tragedy become victims of cruelty. Widows are suspected to be the cause for any illness visiting the neighbours. In certain states, single women are projected as witches and publicly lynched so that their property can be swindled. In Jharkhand, in a particular year, widows were the victims in 26 out of 28 instances of witch hunting.

Brinda Karat also called upon all the democratic minded persons to challenge the dominant cultural norms which negate the independent personality and citizenship of a woman. Women�s work is central to the family. With all their contributions, strength and sacrifices, they should be actually considered auspicious models for development. Single women who, day in and day out, challenge this culture, must be supported in all possible ways. She also demanded that the government policies must be challenged. In Tripura, under the Left Front government, deserted women get a pension of Rs 300 p m. Other states must follow this example. Finally, she congratulated the Tamilnadu unit for correctly taking up this issue and wished the movement well in all its endeavours.

A presidium consisting of Amirtham, Mallika, Valentina, Lakshmi and Dhamayanthi conducted the proceedings. Valentina inaugurated the convention and Suganthi placed the survey report. After the discussions, Vasuki summed up. A charter of demands was placed by Jhansi Rani. The convention was greeted by T Devi of Kairali Vidhava Sangh, Kerala, and by Kamalajothi from Nimmadhi, an NGO for the welfare of widows in Virudhunagar. A huge public meeting was organised but had to be wound up in between due to heavy rains.

The convention provided the single women a platform to share their problems, compare notes, evolve a strategy, strengthen their fighting spirit and, last but not the least, the will to live a life of dignity.