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India's single women: challenging cultural expectations

Christian Aid partner Ekal Nari Sangathan (Strong Women Alone) works across six states in India to connect single women and help educate them about their rights and entitlements.

Many are grown women, but some are widows as young as 10 years old.

SWA was established in 1998 in Rajasthan; since then its network has become a national one and membership of its Single Women's Association has grown to 85,000.

The organisation has had a profound effect on the lives and futures of tens of thousands of single and widowed women and girls.

The plight of single women

In India, tens of millions of single, divorced or widowed women are customarily excluded from many areas of life, subject to significant discrimination and often violent abuse. They can feel extremely ostracised and alone.

Younger widows are often pressured by their families to remarry and leave their children behind with relatives or friends, as is the custom.

Many SWA members choose to remain single in order to raise their children and have suffered abuse, discrimination and social exclusion as a result.

Feeling pressure from their families and communities to wear dark clothes and stay indoors, members draw courage, confidence and conviction from one another through groups at local, district, state and national level. 

Fellow SWA members provide an alternative family to help challenge these customs, encouraging one another to wear bright colours and become active members of society.

Rights and entitlements

Members of the Jharol Block group of the Single Women's Association

Members of the Single Women's Association with group leader Savitri Bai (centre)

The SWA's Single Women's Association offers literacy classes to its members who have missed out on formal education provision due to custom, culture and poverty.

It helps women to navigate complex bureaucracy to access important social security entitlements, including child welfare benefits and pensions.

In 2011 alone the organisation helped illiterate and vulnerable women to claim approximately £214,550 in government benefits. 

A more equal society

When Savitri Bai was widowed at 33, her main fear was that her in-laws would take her land and home from her. SWA helped her gain the title deeds for her land and access government support to build a well to irrigate her crops and feed her family.

Ten years on, Savitri Bai is a local SWA group leader and an elected deputy leader of her village. She helps protect and stands up for other single women in Jharol Block, Udaipur, and like many other women leaders being nurtured by the organisation, is dedicated to a more equal and less patriarchal society. 

'Once patriarchy is controlled, we'll be rid of all the violence and pain' she says. 'That’s the kind of world I want.'

Slideshow: the plight of India's single women

To view the gallery full-screen, simply press play and then select the enlarge button on the bottom right. To show the captions, select 'Show info' on the top right.


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