Yet around this time Ms. Srivastava’s husband, Om, died – and suddenly she had a new and visceral understanding of how a woman without a husband is simply discounted. “A lot of human resource is just locked up and suppressed,” she says.
Many things in the new India are changing, but the primacy of marriage is not one of them – the last census revealed that women are marrying at a slightly later age, and educated urban women in particular may stay single into their 30s, but there was no appreciable rise in the number of women who did not marry.
The forum, however, is making incremental headway. Last year the women obtained a rare meeting with Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Indian National Congress party and the country’s most famous widow. She heard them out sympathetically, Ms. Srivastava says, and asked some canny questions. Then she wrote a quick note on their file and within hours, the Minister of Family Welfare was on the phone asking to meet them.
The minister, Ms. Srivastava recalls, seemed horrified to learn about the measly pension her ministry pays out, and the women’s lack of property rights. As is the chronic problem, she seemed never to have thought about single women before.
Both the government and UN Women sent representatives to the national gathering this year. The forum, with 50,000 members, is growing fast. Ms. Srivastava says that its greatest value may be in the new family it gives its members, who often find that when they are spurned by their former in-laws, their natal family shuns them too.
Komal Prathnik was married as a teenager to a young man her father chose in Rajasthan. He was an alcoholic who beat her – her arms and chest still bear the scars – and she left him when the youngest of their three children was one. She would have gone sooner, she says, but her own family told her they would not take her back. Finally, it didn’t matter that she had nowhere to go. She did construction labour to support the children, and a bit of tailoring, and squeezed in the hours to earn a high-school diploma.
But while it was widely known that her cheating husband had beaten her, it was Ms. Prathnik who was shunned in the community: “They made my life miserable – I was taunted, I was called a tainted woman, my sisters-in-law made it almost impossible for me to step outside my house.” Eventually, she says, she stopped talking altogether, and hardly said a word untilshe heard about the forum a decade later and went to a meeting.
And that was the start of her new life. “By now I’ve become strong. I don’t bother today – they must still be gossiping.” Ms. Prathnik is a woman on a mission, personally supporting victims of abuse (150 so far) to make the choice she did. “I’m working towards my goal of making women stronger and they can live in the outside world.”
When Saraswati Singh was young and still startling people with her defiant plan not to marry, she taught herself to ride a bike and used it to travel through the area. People hurled insults at her. “I didn’t bother, I did what I wanted to do,” she says with a satisfied smile.
Yet still when she shows up at a community event, no one offers her a chair. Men discourage their wives from associating with her, alleging she is of dubious morals.
“The issue is that once you are married people [say] ‘she has a guard, she is controlled’ – but the person who is not married, she is not controlled, she can go anywhere she wants to. So she is ‘characterless.’ ” Morality, she says, is still a powerful tool for controlling women.
There are lonely nights when she doubts her decision to stay single, but that feeling always passes, she says. “I’ve met the Prime Minister, I’ve met ministers – I’ve been everywhere, lobbying. I’m proud of myself that I’ve done all this. I’m single but I’m not alone.”
And she sees change coming. “Young girls … are now interested to know their rights, to talk, to fight,” she says, crossing her arms in satisfaction. “Now the roads are jammed with girls on bikes – and even driving cars.”
BY THE NUMBERS
According to India’s last census, there are:
34,162,051 widows aged 18 and older
2,286,788 women over 18 who are divorced and separated
3,317,719 unmarried or never-married women over 30