These talking points are based on the outcome of the National Consultation on Agrarian Single Women: Distress, Access to Livelihood, Services, India, which brought together a range of intellectuals, academicians, social and grassroots activists along with rural single women and widows of rural India. The consultation addressed issues related to the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides in a most comprehensive way and also discussed the multiple crises and the extremely challenging circumstances that single rural women face with total despair. Further, the consultation also focused on deprivations within the family and institutional discrimination in basic services, deliverables and schemes that are faced by poor rural widows and single women.
The testimonies that were presented in the presence of the Minister of Rural Development clearly exposed that single rural women have one thing in common: they live dehumanized existences, and their dignity and identity have been eroded. The women also narrated that their fundamental right “Right to life” is at stake. Almost all the testimonies articulated that not only their economic, social and cultural rights (right to work, housing, land, health, education) are violated, even their civil rights are violated, and encompassed with gender based violence, which they face within family and in the public sphere as well. The testimonies also revealed that if single rural women raise their voices, they are labelled as witches, traitor, agents of social and cultural divisiveness. Consequently, these violations have damaged their basic livelihoods, leading to greater victimization, resulting in subhuman living conditions and greater destitution. Further, the testimonies presented showed how gender bias, traditional prejudices, and harmful traditional practices result in single women’s subordination, leading to hunger and impoverishment.
The papers presented indicated that there is little or no data available on single rural women’s plight and survival, though the little available data indicated that rural distress affects the aged and more so women. Nonetheless, the two-day consultation attempted to interlink the issues that undermine single rural women’s existences and rights. Almost all the papers that were presented had common elements— double discrimination, deprivations, denial of access to resources and right to life that rural single women face because they are generally invisible or their identity is ignored. The papers also examined that among the poor, rural single women are the poorest, more vulnerable and more adversely affected by poverty than men. The incidence of poverty among rural single women is on the rise either due to agrarian distress or non-availability of labour due to mechanized forms of agricultural production. In addition, disappointing performance of the rural non-farm sector in general and the greater attractiveness of certain urban centres on account of neoliberal urbanisation, increase rural to urban migration and impose more burdens on women left behind in rural areas to fend for themselves.
The papers also pointed out that post liberalisation, parameters of globalisation, commercialisation, and the largely neglected process of stagnation of production, productivity and incomes have only paved the way to farmers’ distress. These elements have affected farmers in important ways in the agriculture sector and have resulted in farmers’ suicides in the more advanced states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and parts of Tamil Nadu, resulting in an increase in asset-less farmers’ widows and women-headed households.
Further, these deliberations pointed out adverse discrimination experienced by older widows f farmers and other women family members who face multidimensional misery and the age factor compounded with other forms of discrimination — ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, migrant status, marital and family status, literacy so on.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) single women and single women from conflict zones face double institutional discrimination and they are increasingly targeted by the opponents and general public as well. Thus, single women often experience a disproportionate degree of discrimination, intolerance, abuse, pitted against each other and neglected by the state apparatus. These single rural women are denied access to health care, education for their children and livelihood. They are reduced to homelessness because they lack legal status or legal documents.
Many single, widowed and older women do not have access to private health insurance, or they are excluded from State-funded schemes because they did not contribute to a scheme during their working life time, due to the fact that many of the vulnerable single women and widows work in the low-paid unorganized sector. In addition, gender-specific physical and mental health conditions and diseases tend to be overlooked by research, academic studies, public policy and service provisions and mechanisms. Information on sexual health and HIV/AIDS is rarely provided in a form that is acceptable, accessible and appropriate for single and widowed women. Yet another factor that was enumerated during the deliberations is gender-based discrimination in rural employment throughout their life that has a cumulative impact in their old age, forcing older, widowed and single women to face disproportionately lower incomes and pensions, or even no pension, compared with men.
An estimated 89.3% of households do not have access to any formal source of credit. Financial exclusion is most acute in the Central, Eastern and North-Eastern regions, which have a concentration of 64% of all financially excluded farmer households in the country. This is further aggravated by the lack of access to education and training, credit, markets, technical assistance, labour protection, and social capital including the opportunity to participate equally with men in farmers’ organisations. The weakest link in India’s agricultural effort is its totally inefficient extension services. The emergence of new poor is another phenomenon that deserves our attention. Focusing on the above challenge, the paper on implementation of CEDAW and human rights standards articulated that the State failed the protect women’s human rights and allowed single rural women to get alienated from equal participation in community activities; access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities and appropriate technology; equal distribution and opportunity to have control over resources—land, forest, water, and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes, therefore further pushing single rural women to deprived situations.
The programmes, schemes and services for single rural women’s empowerment have largely overlooked the question of gender equality. The schemes aiming to reduce poverty view poor rural single women as the recipients of benefits rather than active equal partners in decision making, project formulation and implementation. Even minimum access to basic needs such as food, health, livelihoods and education (formal and non-formal) has been eliminated from service delivery mechanisms, reducing rural single women to precarious circumstances. Rural poverty, hunger and livelihoods need to be looked at holistically by converging the services and delivery mechanisms for impoverished single rural women.
According to the 2002 Census, 39.8 million single women live in India. The Central and the State governments need to make adequate budgetary provisions to reach out to this large number of single women. Insufficient provisions at the top, lead to single women in need being turned away at the bottom. Not willing to rely on the charitable impulses of family and society for support, poor single rural women in the country — comprising the most vulnerable 10 per cent of the entire female population in the country — need public funds necessary for them to live with dignity with their own identity.