The Confines of Invisibility for Single Women in India - Reflections from the Field
By Rebecca Shibu
While field visits constitute a large part of the company journey at Social Compact and one that lays out an initial comprehension of what is and what could be, these visits also move us via interactions and quiet occurrences, on a personal level. Between conversations around dignity and equity, there are pockets of learnings hidden in these interactions that help this journey become a process that can consistently evolve. Especially with inclusion of a range of identities in the effort to achieve social change, invisibility of many such remains unaddressed. Hence, focus group discussions during site visits to companies help us unravel the systemic issues that fall through the cracks in a business infrastructure and framework of government entitlements by engaging with the workers on ground.
In a recent visit to an oil and gas company in Pune, we had the opportunity to interact with Savita Didi and Gauri Didi who are contracted as security personnel by an insurance agency to work at the company. The focused group discussion conducted with them, shed light on their sense of financial independence, security of work and an empowering pride associated with work. While women’s access to adequately paid work is an undisputed economic responsibility as well as a primary human right, it offers women the agency to rewrite gendered concepts of autonomy. Both women were able to reiterate that through our focus group discussion with them.
On a personal front, both were single women, Savita Didi widowed with two children and Gauri Didi unmarried living in a family entirely dependent on her income. Being single women breadwinners of their respective families, they indicated that their plates were full of making financial ends meet and their obligations around care work at home. With most share of work depending on them for sustenance, they continue to live a life that is labeled as dependents. It is also pertinent to note how they represent a larger pattern in the ecosystem and the invisibility of single women continues to increase, reducing their agency and access to a considerably better livelihood.
In 2001, there were approximately 51.2 million single women and the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights report noted that that number rose by 39%. Furthermore, the 2011 census indicated that single women head nearly 20% of households. This is not a small number that can be overlooked or shunned as residual in nature.
The emphasis laid on the personal and professional through the FGDs, allow us to grasp the social context and identify levels of institutional support needed for workers who are similarly situated from the ones part of the FGDs. These discussions with informal workers in businesses are carefully weaved to bring out the experience of informality of work that can be analyzed and potentially improved. They also throw light on the nuanced experience of informality from lenses of gender, economic and social agency and aspects of health that push individuals and communities to be categorized as vulnerable. Identification and acknowledgment being the first step of breaking down informality, it further allows for visibility of vulnerable populations. And when it comes to women, their invisibility is derived greatly from gendered notions of the society that has seeped into all aspects of our lives.
The Government of India identifies single women to include widows, separated, divorced, deserted and unmarried women. However, at a policy level, the term “single” generally only refers to women who are widowed. This implies that all other categories of women are excluded at the level of implementation which extends to inclusion in government schemes and entitlements. Even in the case of widows, there is dependence established to their deceased partners for the benefits to function and come through.
In the context of low-income groups in India, where women have largely resorted to unpaid care work or engaged in the informal economy through intensive, low-income and unskilled labor, this invisibility and dependence on male members of the family, either fathers or husbands, have stripped them off their individual identities and means to access entitlements. For many marginalized women ration cards function as an enablement to get subsidized food and also serves as a proof of identity. However, the ones who are separated from their husbands or parents are no longer eligible for the card as they battle to get the names of their parents or previous spouses removed. To put things into perspective, since the National Food Security Act came into place, it was noted that as per the 2011 census, there were about 10 lakh women who were left out from the Public Distribution System owing to the issues with their names in ration cards due to marriage, separation from their spouses or migration to a new location only within Odisha.
COVID-19 pandemic has been swathed with loss and grief that brought families and individuals in a difficult spot to procure documentation of deceased family members and relevant dependent documents. With women being far less sensitized to understand and grapple with the bureaucratic maze to get access to government documents, the process gets complicated for them. Discouragement and another layer of inaccessibility gets enabled in the process.
Gauri Didi asked us towards the end of our discussion about what it is that single women like them could do to be better. Her question tussled around the dearth of entitlements for unmarried women, struggles of “dependence” despite being a 40+ year old woman, it indicated towards her own limited knowledge in the subject and the issues of navigating a process that prioritizes conventional families and arguably has no space for a standalone woman, who after all, isn’t a dependent.
The question continues to ring in my ears to this day, holding up a mirror to how invisibility impacts individuals and where acknowledgment must stand in movements of social change. The onus, at the end of the day, shouldn’t lie on individuals to prove that they have an opportunity to be better in order to deserve better. Policies, efforts and movements should be constructed in a way that are founded on principles of inclusion of individuals and communities.
As times change, individuals are increasingly becoming part of this category by choice. And, in the future of a workforce that will grow and diversify, being seen and heard would be a prerequisite to accelerate our journey of achieving dignity and equity for workers.
Disclaimer: Names of security personnel have been changed for the purposes of the blog.
About the author
Rebecca works with the Social Compact at Dasra. Through her work, she hopes to help build ecosystems that humanize labour, invest in the future of the workforce and nurture responsible business practices embedded in care and equity
This is really well written!
Thank you, Nidhi! :)
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