Sastri Sandha, a member of the milkmaid caste, lives in the rural Sundargarh district, Orissa. Now over 30 years of age, unmarried and landless, she counts among some of the most vulnerable of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. But in the dappled light under the mango tree where we chat, this strong, healthy and eloquent lady seems far from vulnerable. Her parents sit not far away. It’s as though they are monitoring the conversation: as well they might, as we’ve been told that Sastri has been exploited by them for many years, as labour on their agricultural land. Since she never married, she has never been in a position to leave the family home. They have never paid her for her work and she has always been entirely dependent upon them for the roof above her head. However, Sastri does not mention this. Instead she begins by explaining how she has turned this apparently impossible situation around: “My name is Sastri Sandha from Gidhpahadi Village,” she says. “I am a single woman and I am the President of an organisation made up of other similar single women. We now have 300 members!”
Women in India and much of the rest of South Asia are classed as ‘single’ if they are widowed, separated, divorced or over 30 but unmarried. At that age, there is very little hope of marrying and the stigma begins to set in. According to the 2001 census, there are over 40 million single women in India. For educated urbanites, this status might be a lifestyle choice, made with the awareness of what social and family opprobrium this will bring. For the rural poor, the ‘single woman’ status brings with it a customary denial of any land rights, social rejection and reduced earning potential.
“The objective is to give single women some dignity,” says Baideh Kavdi, a member of the Orang tribe, who has also formed a women’s group. “In the past, parents might have taken care of their daughters,” she continues, “but nowadays single women cannot depend on their families to take care of them. We have to be able to live independently.” Sastri agrees: “The problem with our single women is that after separating from their husband, their in-laws don’t give them their land rights, but when they return to their parents’ house then neither the parents nor the brothers will give them land rights either. Another issue is that un-wedded mothers face more problems in getting any such rights. How can such mothers maintain their children?”
Nata Kishor Mishra is a founding member of CIRTD (the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development), an NGO that promotes the rights of some of the most marginalised people in this area: “We work in the tribal villages and have found that whenever schemes and government facilities arrive, the villagers who are poor and living below the poverty level, often still remain deprived. But among those, when we delve deeper into the problem, further into the analysis, we find a lot of single women are living in the villages and are actually even much more deprived but there is nobody there to speak out for them. In addition the community doesn’t accept them either. If they are living in a house with their brother or sister or parents, the community does not recognise them as part of the family. The community tends to think: ‘No, no, no. She must have done something wrong. That’s why she’s in that state.’”
Collectively giving voice to their claims to rights is a step in the right direction, but without land or work, single women who are reliant on the goodness of relatives or community not to abandon them, have little leverage. However, through the support of CIRTD both Sastri and Baideh have now learned the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and also applied the climate smart method to other crops. “I might be a single woman, but I am also a farmer. I grow vegetables and rice. And I follow the SRI method,” says Sastri. “We now do the work in less time and with less expense. But we get more produce. So we like and prefer SRI.” By collectively leasing land and adopting this high yield, low cost method of farming, the women, together with their colleagues, are ensuring their own food security without having to rely on other community members or family. “We lease the land to grow vegetables, which we sell in the market, says Baideh. “Whatever money we earn is used to provide for our family needs. And we also have money left over. Now, we are able to live with dignity.”
Collectively standing up for themselves has reaped rewards politically as well as in the field. Following a government survey, Sastri’s members won the right to be considered householders, which means they now have the right to ration cards. Next, they intend to push for the all-important land rights that will give them greater security. It is an uphill struggle, but there are laws in India that protect the vulnerable and these single women are raising their voices now so their claims can be heard. “The government pays a Widow’s Pension and a Handicap Pension. In the same way, the government should make a policy for a single women’s pension,” says Baideh. “All single women should get the pension. The government runs different schemes such as Mokudia (Home for Women) and Indra Awas Yojna (for people living below the poverty line) so single women should also benefit from such schemes.”
“When we interact with these women, it’s clear they think: I have done some wrong, that’s why I am in this position,” says Nata Mishra. “But they have not done anything wrong. By bad luck and the process of this society, they have come to this. So, it is a very important thing and I think activists should work more on this to further influence the state government and the national government. There should be several different schemes for them: for land, for accessing other rights and for their livelihood.”
Baideh, Sastri and the women they campaign with have already overcome a great deal and are now, at least, starting to get their voices heard. Meanwhile, it seems, Sastri’s parents are not likely to argue with their daughter any time soon.
The Centre for Intregrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD) works in Sundargarh district of Orissa state, India