Leave no 'Single Woman' Behind
According to Census 2011, 71.4 million or 12 per cent of the female population of India is ‘single’. As per the Census, this population group- which includes widows, divorcees and unmarried women, and women deserted by husbands- has increased from 51.2 million in 2001 to 71.4 million in 2011.
Single women face many challenges in our highly patriarchal and caste ordained society, and religious and cultural norms add to these challenges. The women themselves and their children face negative social attitudes, social restrictions, discrimination and exclusion, and are considered easy targets for exploitation and violence. Property disputes and excessive control is common. Such practices can be perpetrated by members of the family, community, wider society, employers and duty bearers. While one cannot create a hierarchy of the challenges, widows and women who are deserted by their husbands and their children are particularly vulnerable to such abuse. The difficulty in accessing work/employment and lack of financial stability adds to their challenges.
The ‘100 Hotspots: Snapshot of socially excluded and vulnerable population groups and SDGs in India’  collaborated with Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) , a forum of single women in Himachal Pradesh initiated in 2005. In 2018, the 100 Hotspots gathered data from 100 households in the community through community volunteers to assess the development status of the households on the SDG indicators. Nirmal, the chief functionary of ENSS, has in-depth knowledge about the single women community in Himachal Pradesh.
In the 100 Hotspots report, the development indicators of single women households from Himachal Pradesh were low in comparison with the national development indicators. For instance, owning a BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration card makes the household eligible for various government subsidies and special provisions. Out of 100 single women households studied in Himachal Pradesh, only 26% of single women households possessed BPL cards. Single women also reported poor availability of employment, for only about 4-5 months in the preceding year. More than 70 per cent of Single Women households tracked in the study were living in a Kutcha house. Even children in these households had challenges in accessing their rights, with only 30% of them having attended any type of school. The indicators show how far behind Single Women households are when it comes to progress on the SDGs.
Nirmal reflected that the process of a participatory methodology in the study, where the members themselves gathered the evidence, was empowering. Having their own members collect information gave them the confidence to share their concerns more openly. It also provided an opportunity to build awareness in the community, and made them connect to global processes like the SDGs. The study provided them data and evidence they could use for engaging with local governments, and better access welfare schemes and entitlements to promote opportunities for their families and children.
On a personal note, Nirmal was happy to engage with the study and build linkages with other vulnerable communities in the 100 Hotspots and the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan process. She had gained knowledge and information on the SDGs, and the national and global processes. She hoped that the concerns and challenges of single women would gain attention, and their welfare promoted.
COVID-19 and the lockdown has been particularly difficult for single women households. Many of them who worked as domestic workers in households lost their jobs. Unemployment has increased and small businesses have been destroyed due to the lockdown. For most young girls in the community, schools provided the only way for social and economic mobility in life. However, with the lockdown resulting in a shift to online learning, children were unable to access education due to internet connectivity issues and lack of access to laptops and mobile phones. The 100 Hotspots study had also reported that single women in Himachal Pradesh did not believe that they enjoyed freedom of movement, a challenge
that has now been further intensified.
Access to healthcare services has significantly reduced during the pandemic. Due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19, women find it hard to approach clinics and hospitals. Even prior to the lockdown, the women in the study reported that access to healthcare services was difficult and not satisfactory. Some of them travelled a distance of 60 kilometers to visit a gynecologist as the public health facility in their area did not have one. Their out-of-pocket expenditure (OOPE) on health was higher than the national average.
When the lockdown was strictly enforced, many streets and areas which otherwise used to be populated with people, were empty and isolated. This raised huge concerns regarding the safety of women, and hindered their movement significantly. This hindering of their movement meant that they were unable to access government facilities and other public services provided to the public. The single women have been coming together under the banner of ‘Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS)’ in many states across the country. The forum strongly supports one another and works to promote the dignity and rights of single women. The Leave No One Behind (LNOB) principle in the SDGs framework can prove to be a useful instrument in highlighting the status of these smaller less visible groups within the broad categories of vulnerable communities.
 The 100 Hotspots is an initiative by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) to increase focus on the development of vulnerable communities and amplify their voice and narratives. It uses the Leave No One Behind (LNOB) principle in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to assess vulnerable communities and their progress in a holistic and intersectional manner. The project partners with local community organisations to gather disaggregated community driven data to build evidence and advocacy for greater inclusion of the communities. Initiated in 2018, the project has worked with 35 communities- single women being one of them.  Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan is a forum of single women in Himachal Pradesh initiated in 2005. The forum includes widows, abandoned young women, women who are affected by HIV+, and low-income single women. They empower single women by organizing them into collectives to fight for their rights. The women work in collectives through which the members work in unison to change their economic, socio- political and legal status so that each one can lead a dignified life. One of the major issues they face is gaps in accessing information regarding services and welfare schemes, and challenges in accessing rights and justice. Single women are a less visible population group within the broad vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. The organisation is active in over 7 districts of Himachal Pradesh spanning 21 blocks.
This blog is co-authored by Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) & Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA)
Photos of the community by Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (WNTA)