Osmanabad, India: Rajshree Gungoo, a chatty 27-year-old with a quick smile, speaks up at a gathering of about 40 women discussing the challenges facing single women in Maharashtra.
“It’s very difficult. I don’t have a husband, I don’t have a son, even my father doesn’t want me,” she says, her voice breaking. “I am alone and powerless to do anything.”
She breaks off, using the end of her saree to wipe her tears. Around her, others nod and mutter.
In drought-hit Marathwada, the state’s poorest region, there is an unusually high number of single women. Some were widowed after their farmer husbands committed suicide because of debt; others were abandoned because they didn’t produce a son, while some were left behind when their husbands left to search for work.
Alone and without financial support, the women and their children are usually thrown out of home by their in-laws, denied ownership of the land they worked on and any compensation from the government.
“Every day, every hour is a struggle for them – to get a home, get land, even their identity cards, which are in the name of the father or the husband. They face humiliations constantly,” said Vishwanth Todkar, secretary at Paryay, a charity that works with marginalised communities.
In India, only 13 per cent of farm land is owned by women. The figure is even lower when it comes to lower caste Dalit women who are single.
Maharashtra, one of India’s most prosperous states, has seen some of the biggest battles for the rights of marginalised communities, including the Laxmi Mukti campaign of the early 1990s to transfer half the family’s land to women.
Since then, however, efforts have lost momentum due to low levels of literacy and a lack of awareness.
About 41 per cent of households headed by women in India do not own land, and make a living through casual manual labour, according to the 2011 socio-economic and caste census. In Maharashtra, it is more than 45 per cent.
In Marathwada, many single women get duped into marriage or are trafficked as sex workers because they have no means of earning a livelihood, Bandgar said.
“They are treated worse than animals – even cattle live with greater security, greater comfort. It is a dangerous world for them. So if she can stake her claim to land or property, then she has some security.” said Lata Bandgar, a programme coordinator at Paryay, who was thrown out of her home after her husband left her years before.
A new draft policy for women unveiled in May acknowledges the challenges single women face, including in finding safe and affordable housing.
The policy aims to strengthen the social infrastructure for single women, as well as create a “comprehensive social protection mechanism” and improve their overall condition.
In Osmanabad, charities are helping single women to get government-issued identity cards that entitle them to subsidised food rations, to apply for bank loans, and to lay claim to property and land.
Last year, Paryay convinced the Osmanabad district council to set aside 20 lakhs for loans of up to 20,000 rupees a year for eligible single women to purchase poultry or goats.
“With this money, the women can stay in the village and make a living that is not dependent on farming alone,” district council chief A.E. Rayate told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We would like them to be financially independent,” he said.
That is also the aim of the gathering of single women who filled in application forms for loans from Paryay’s self-help group.
“What are you crying for?” Nirja Bhatnagar, regional manager at ActionAid, which partners Paryay, asked Gungoo.
“Don’t think that just because you don’t have a husband, a father or a son, that you are worthless. You have to believe in yourself and move forward with the support of women like you.”
© Thomson Reuters 2016