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Indian women participate in a silent procession to mourn the death of a gang rape victim, in Gauhati, India, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012.Anupam Nath/The Associated Press

Saraswati Singh came into the world on Aug. 15, 1947, and that, she says, may be why her life turned out the way it has. "I was born on Independence Day and up until now I'm independent."

She is the daughter of a farmer in Jharkhand, in the east of India, and from a caste where girls were married off by the age of 9 or 10. She persuaded her parents she should stay in school until the eighth grade. When they found a husband for her, he was illiterate. She balked. The groom's family was so insulted, they swiftly married him to a more grateful girl. Ms. Singh became tainted goods: She remembers her mother and aunts wailing that no one would marry her now. That suited her just fine. She went to nursing school, started a social-development organization and got into politics.

And she stayed single. It is difficult to overstate just how rare a choice this was – or is – in India. The critical importance of marriage, particularly for women, is one of the few values shared across all caste, ethnic and religious groups in this vast country. A woman's marriage is the event on which her family is focused from her birth.

Ms. Singh's choice not to marry is so uncommon that she was a rarity even at a recent annual gathering of India's National Forum for Single Women's Rights, for which she serves on the national executive. The organization – made up mostly of divorced, abandoned, separated and widowed women – was meeting to try to advance its agenda of rights for single women.

Over the past two weeks, women's rights have become the subject of emotional debate and protests in India, prompted by the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus here. The woman died on Saturday.

The situation for single women is particularly dire – widows are meant to receive pensions from the Indian government (about $10 a month), but separated and abandoned women do not. Divorced women are, in theory, entitled to a share of family property, but many women never succeed in getting a husband who leaves them to grant a divorce, and so cannot make a claim, explains forum president Nirmal Chandel.

And while in rare cases divorced and separated women may succeed in getting a court order for alimony from their husbands, those judgments are rarely enforced, and these women are typically left in penury, she says.

The forum's network of branches also supports women resisting the oppressive social customs that continue to blight the lives of widows.

Ms. Chandel, for example, was married at 22 in her small town in Himachal Pradesh in the north. Her husband died mysteriously two years later. Within hours, the stunned Ms. Chandel was set upon by her in-laws, who removed her jewellery, her lipstick and her coloured clothes, and the mattress from her bed. She was dressed in a stark white saree, made to sleep on the floor, given plain food at meal times, and barred from any family gathering – customary treatment for a Hindu widow. When her in-laws sat together, she would overhear them blaming her ill luck for her husband's death.

After nearly a year of this, she caught sight of herself in a mirror, and thought, "I understand I've lost a husband but does it mean I also don't live?" She heard about the forum, and snuck out of the house to attend a meeting. Before long, she had a job as a co-ordinator with a local aid organization, and moved to another town. Her family, and her in-laws, were aghast. "My mother would say, 'How will you survive, alone?'"

Today, at 47, she walks with her chin lifted, shoulders square – not widow posture – and she wore a salwar-kameez of purple, orange, red and blue, with heavy turquoise and gold costume jewellery, when she addressed the forum. She seemed, in effect, to be demanding that the world see her. That is the greatest challenge for single women in India, she says: Without a husband, they do not exist – every government form asks for "husband's name," every festival has a role for wifely duty.

"This is a male-dominated society: As long as you have a father, brother, husband – you have standing," she says. "Once you don't have them, you have no importance."

One snowy-haired widow in a burgundy cotton saree nodded approvingly in the back row while Ms. Chandel spoke. Ginny Srivastava, 70, was born and raised in Burlington, Ont. But 43 years ago, she fell in love with a fellow education student at graduate school in Toronto; they married and came back to his native Rajasthan. They became social activists, working to fight poverty, and they noticed the dire straits in which many widows lived. They helped to set up an organization called The Association of Strong Women Alone, the first such group of single women, in 2000. Four years later, they held a meeting to which they drew 1,500 single women from 11 states to a song-filled gathering in Jaipur, and these most marginalized of women began to plot a national lobbying effort.

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."



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

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