Kamla, 26, makes a pretty picture: Red sari, iridescent nail polish and a 'bindi'- embellished forehead. She hardly seems the archetypal Indian widow. But scratch the surface and she recounts how life in her native Bikaner (Rajasthan) became tempestuous after her husband's death in a road mishap. "Two kids, ailing parents and no money had left me completely rudderless," she recalls.
It was then that Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) - the Association of Strong Women Alone - an Udaipur-based NGO that works for the uplift of widows and abandoned women in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat - took Kamla under its wing. ENSS helped her secure a pension, gave her vocational training and engaged a lawyer to ensure her right to her husband's property.
"Widows lead a marginalized existence in India," says Angoori Devi, 28, an active member of ENSS, who was married off at three and widowed at 16. She recalls her harrowing existence as a widowed farm laborer with four children to raise, even as her brothers-in-law sexually abused her. However, after ENSS' intervention, Angoori started a 'papad'-making enterprise in her house, with a bank loan. She now has five village women working under her.
Formed in January 2000, ENSS works in multifarious ways to help the cause of widows. By focusing on the lack of social justice for these women and the discrimination they suffer, the organization ensures their right to inheritance, property and land ownership. It also ensures a woman's right to work outside her home, keep her children and not be coerced into marrying her deceased husband's kin.
"In addition," says Sunehri Bala, a Jaipur-based ENSS activist, "through group discussions, outreach programmes and annual conventions, we sensitize people about the low status of widows and the complex negative social/economic consequences of widowhood. We also try and create a support structure for widows' groups and empower grassroots organizations working for us."
That's certainly a lot of good work considering that a recent study by Jaipur's Budget Analysis and Research Centre highlights that Rajasthan alone has 15,89,000 widows and 60,000 women abandoned by their husbands. Of these, only a fraction - 2,12,000 - receives governmental financial assistance in the form of a monthly pension.
The last Census (2001) puts the number of widows in the country at eight per cent of the total female population, while 1.5 per cent women in the age group of 15 years or above are either separated, abandoned, thrown out of their homes or have walked out of marriage. Thus, in toto, about 10 per cent of Indian women are 'alone'. According to Widows World-Wide, a US-based organization, illiteracy and poor economic conditions are primarily responsible for the abysmal plight of widows in developing countries, especially those in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
And this is where organizations like ENSS act as a godsend. Besides providing vocational training and skills, the NGO provides legal guidance. It has a dedicated panel of lawyers - largely comprising women - who render their services voluntarily. According to Manjula Joshi, President, ENSS, Rajasthan, the organization also tries to impact governmental policy by suggesting several widow welfare measures. In fact, following a memorandum given by ENSS recently to the Rajasthan state government, each child of a single mother may soon be entitled to a stipend of Rs 1,000 (US$1=Rs45) per annum. "It isn't a big amount," opines Joshi. "But at least it's a beginning."
Joshi hopes to spread ENSS's reach in the state from the current 16 districts to 32 over the next couple of years. Widening the reach, point out ENSS activists, is also critical in a state like Himachal Pradesh (HP) where it the number of single women, including widows, divorcees and deserted women, is an alarming 27 per cent of the total female populace.
Out of a total of 14,38,000 married women in HP, 2,29,000 are widows. "As compared to 10 per cent of the total female population of Rajasthan being widowed, deserted or divorced, the HP figure is truly worrisome," adds Joshi. Currently, ENSS is addressing 20 districts in the state. Here, they have managed to expedite the pace of many government welfare schemes whose benefits were not percolating down to its beneficiaries.
Apart from working closely with local government agencies, ENSS also organizes annual conventions where its 35,000-odd members and activists participate, to heighten the visibility of single/widowed/deserted women. Information on government schemes, social security, insurance, income generation opportunities, health, legal and other issues is also given at these annual gatherings. It also focuses on issues such as inadequate compensation from the state, domestic violence, widows' pension, tribal self-rule, maintenance laws for separated women and property, and child rights. ENSS's members are also encouraged to raise their voice against ossified caste customs and superstitions.
Since ENSS deals with many illiterate women, it has kept its membership procedure simple. Women are required to fill up a form and register themselves after paying a nominal annual membership fee of Rs 11 at the local office. Block Level Committee members, in charge of recruiting new members, take up cases brought to them, such as those of mental/physical atrocities, caste and community customs and problems of claiming land and property. After a thorough discussion at the monthly Block Committee meeting, the members then decide upon an effective strategy to tackle them.
Shichiangmo, a spirited ENSS activist in HP, for instance, says the group has helped her bring sunshine into a lot of local women's lives. She has managed to electrify over 100 houses in Changuth village of Lahaul through a UNDP-funded solar energy project. ENSS had initially approached local government bodies with their proposal but were turned away. However, UNDP came to their aid and thus came about the successful project.
She is now focusing on helping abandoned women, who are married to 'outside' men. According to Shichiangmo, taking advantage of a local custom, Shorshung - which allows women to choose their own husbands - 'outsiders', usually government employees on temporary postings, 'marry' local women for as long as their posting lasts. In the absence of any legal document or proof of marriage, these women are then abandoned and left to fend for themselves. "It's a pity to see them waiting for their husbands to return. They refuse to believe they have been cheated by the man they loved," says Shichiangmo. So, she intends creating awareness among the Lahauli women so that they insist upon getting married legally.
According Mohini Giri, an ENSS advisor and former chairperson of National Commission for Women (NCW), the condition of widowed and deserted women in a patriarchal society like India can't improve till they mobilize themselves in groups to claim their rights. "A change in the male mindset is also required," she adds. "We can no longer ignore the sizeable number of single women in the country. In fact, they should be given adequate representation in the various institutions of democracy, including Parliament, state assemblies and Panchayati Raj bodies."
"Ultimately," sums up Sunehri Bala, "it's all about empowerment. Empowering the underprivileged and the destitute so that they can become productive citizens of the country and be confident about their future."