Pallavi Bhattacharya spoke to single women in India from different social and economic backgrounds. This is what they had to say on the challenges of being single in India.
Whereas in India of the yesteryears, most adult Indian women may have been seen as wearing a mangal sutra and sindoor or a wedding or engagement ring on their finger, nowadays you see fewer adult women bearing external signs that they’re in a committed relationship.
Why is this so? This is because a considerable portion of women in romantic relationships, no longer feel it’s necessary to proclaim it through their attire that they aren’t single. The second reason is that the population of single women in India is also increasing.
The number of single women in India is increasing
In 2015, there were over 71 million single women in India. Over the last ten years, there has been a 39% increase in single women in India.
Women above the age of 20, who are yet-to-be-married, widowed, divorced, separated and deserted by their husbands were regarded as eligible for this census.
The most prominent increase in single women was seen in the 25 to 29 age group. This indicates that the marriage age for women has gone up. The average age of marriage was 19.3 years in 1990 and became 21.2 years in 2011.
The 2011 census revealed that single women in India, in the 20 to 24 age group, have increased over the years, which is also indicative of the fact that more marriages are breaking down. The greatest percentage of single women is among widowed women.
Problems single women face in India
Whereas marriage comes with its share of benefits and problems, being single also has its pros and cons. However, in a country like India, which is, by and large, unkind to single women, our women face more trials and tribulations that women of first world nations, where there’s more gender equality.
The challenges Indian single women face are multifarious. Some of them include:
Upwardly mobile women from progressive families may have been imparted a good education and have been encouraged by their families to pursue lucrative careers.
However, there are also millions of single women in India at the grass-root level, who have sadly been denied the education they need, which is why they have had no option whatsoever but to go on to take on low-income jobs.
Worse still, there are some very conservative homes where women aren’t allowed to work.
Indian women have always been disfavoured as far as inheritance of property is concerned, more so among traditional families. Because of all these reasons, the majority of Indian women are in a weak position.
Single women don’t enjoy the benefit of living in a double income family or being solely financially supported by their husbands.
So, financial problems hit them hard if they aren’t earning well and/or haven’t inherited property.
As many Indians live in a joint family, the safety and security issues of single women are less predominant here.
However, as nuclear families are gaining in popularity, many women do face problems with respect to safety, especially single women who travel to other cities for work.
Harassment by society
Very unfortunately, single women are stigmatised in India. Never-married women are regarded as having some ‘defect’ for not having found a husband. Although this is true the world over, it is especially significant in the Indian scenario where marriage is regarded as a woman’s ultimate goal.
Divorced and separated women are often considered as characterless for being selfish enough not to have stayed in a marriage, no matter how hopeless that marriage might have been.
Widowed women, especially in rural areas succumb to social atrocities like being forced to live on a meagre diet, being forbidden from enjoying life, having to wear white and not often being socially allowed to get into a relationship or remarry.
Single women of all kinds are vexed with many personal questions regarding their single status.
Men often prey on single women, as far as sexual harassment cases are concerned. Though women of all relationship status are the brunt of sexual harassment, men erroneously think that single women may more easily yield to their advances.
They assume that a single woman must be starved of a relationship and will therefore even be ready to be with an unattractive and obnoxious married man who is old enough to be her father or grandfather.
Absence of a romantic partner
Though many single women may not readily admit it, quite a few of them do miss the presence of a romantic partner in their lives. Some women settle for no-strings relationships, but the more traditional kind avoid doing so.
Marriage pressures are paramount from parents and relatives. The idea, however, is not to rush into marriage and to get into undesirable relationships.
Many single women face issues of loneliness, though there are many married women who may face the same. If single women feel confident of themselves and are psychologically strong, they are far less likely to feel lonely.
Having an active social life, on both, the personal and professional front helps to ward off loneliness.
Single women who don’t have children may crave motherhood. Nowadays single women are allowed to avail of artificial insemination in India.
However, society will be quick to assume that it’s a child out of wedlock and make life quite difficult for both mother and child. Adoption is another way of becoming a mother, as role models like Sushmita Sen have shown us.
Naaree.com spoke to single women of different social and economic backgrounds. This is what they had to say on the difficulties of being single in India:
Wherever you go in India, you’ll meet Indians with an unquenchable thirst to know why you aren’t married.
Mamani Das, Researcher and Assistant Professor in Computer Science, Kolkata says, “I am pestered as to why I am not married, especially when I attend ceremonies, family gatherings and weddings. I must admit that I do feel lonesome when I see couples happily together. I do miss motherhood and get hurt when women with kids intentionally bring up the fact that I don’t have children with the aim of making me feel miserable. There is a possibility that later in life, I may adopt a child if I am still unmarried.”
As she has earned a Doctorate degree and thereby is quite professionally qualified, she earns quite well and is satisfied on the professional front.
Regarding managing her finances, she says, “I did have to financially struggle when I was young as my father was unwell. To an extent, I funded my own higher education. So, I understand the value of money. I am a cautious spender and save prudently.”
Fiona Caroline, a single mother and Retail and Education Manager from Mumbai point out that Indians jump to the conclusion that a single mother must be perpetually unhappy.
She says, “Most often when people ask me if I am married and I reply, ‘I’m single with three boys,’ they are stunned because, in their mind, a single woman with three boys must be someone who is sad, down and depressed, which I am not.”
Of course, she went through troubled times right after her marriage fell apart.
She says, “I must say that initially when I found myself without a roof over my head and three boys to take care, my self-esteem was extremely low. Even though I was a computer programmer, I just didn’t see myself able to earn even Rs. 1000/- at that time (2003) because I had lost touch with the IT industry. However, the moment I cleared my interview, I never looked back.”
On the personal front, there were issues as well.
She narrates, “I asked for my mum to give me shelter and that I would pay her a sum of money for living in her home. I did incur a lot of trouble during that period with my own mum. I think what society says is more important to people. The whole idea of a woman coming back to her parents’ home is not really acceptable to one’s own. I have been questioned by my neighbours who wanted to know if I would stay in my parents’ home forever, to which I replied in the affirmative. I thereafter decided to never look down on my own self because the moment you do that, you give others an opportunity to look down on you.”
The courageous lady credits her educational background and faith in God for having sailed through troubles.
She says, “I have held my head high and have given my 100% to my three boys. I don’t think I would have preferred my family to help me monetarily. I believe the education I got helped me reach where I am, not to mention my belief in the one above.”
When asked if she faced problems as her family is traditional, she replies, “I do not come from an orthodox family, but I do remember that when I used to go out with my friends at work on a weekend, my mum would have a problem with that. I had to tell her that I was not a teenager and that I have a life of my own. I told her that I can be single with three boys and yet enjoy being social.”
She acknowledges the fact that loneliness is a problem but also feels that there are ways to overcome the same.
She says, “There are times one feels lonely, especially when one sees other friends who have a complete family. However, there is no time to feel lonely all the time as there is so much to do. I also serve in the church and work towards helping others, which leaves me less time to think. I have learnt to spend my time reading, taking music classes and painting.”
She consistently saves money as well. She remarks, “I have saved money for myself in the last 13 years and have been blessed with a good job. I am only in my second job in the last 13 years and am thoroughly enjoying it. I ensure to save through SIPs as money doesn’t remain in my hand. Sometimes it’s difficult to cater to the needs of all the three boys. However, my eldest is working now and so is my second son. They have their lives and I believe they should look after themselves and not me. They should start saving for their own future. I do not ask them to give me any money.”
Rupali Sutar from Mumbai, who has separated from her husband, is inundated with myriad questions on why the separation happened.
People are quick to jump to the conclusion that the marriage may have fallen apart as Rupali is of questionable character. Often people unfairly pin the blame on her for the separation.
They say that in India, even if the marriage has serious problems and the husband is at fault, the wife must submissively put up with the miseries, continue to suffer in silence and repeatedly forgive her husband.
Her puritanical friends and acquaintances are scandalized as she walked out of a marriage. Many of them instil fear in her in terms of her financial future, instead of being encouraging and supportive.
Initially, her husband wasn’t providing for her post-separation. After the court issued a formal order that he must financially support their son, he is giving the child an allowance, which isn’t, however, sufficient, according to Rupali.
He does take the child on outings but doesn’t adequately share more serious responsibilities like taking the child to the doctor when ill.
Rupali with the help of her parental family teaches her child, her husband doesn’t share this duty. A worried Rupali says, “My son is now five. I feel concerned as expenditures will increase as my son gets older.”
Rupali was a bright student, who, however, unfortunately, dropped out of her school after Class 10. Her parents insisted that she complete her education.
She was carried away after having fallen in love, studies were the last thing on her mind. Her family dissuaded her from marrying the man she had fallen in love with, as he was without a job and not too keen on having a career.
Her marriage to the same man she had once disregarded her education for, has now soured.
Rupali, who now heads the housekeeping department of a call centre, feels that had her parents had the money to put her in an English medium school instead of a vernacular one and had she gone on to complete her graduation, she may have been able to do a better job.
Rupali has already received marriage proposals from two grooms whom she considers worthy of winning her hand in marriage. Once bitten twice shy, she will not make the mistake of marrying a man who is not focused on his career.
She has to put up with sexual harassment. Much to her annoyance, she often receives raunchy messages from these men. She politely and firmly tells them to back off. Rupali may remarry once her divorce comes through.
Sabitri Dey who lost her husband to liver failure this year is hounded with nosey questions from people who demand in knowing intricate details on how her husband expired.
They remind her that had her financial condition been better, her husband’s life could have been saved. They conveniently don’t mention that they did nothing to help her monetarily when she needed help.
Her late husband’s friends have however been very supportive. They regard her as their rakhi sister. They have vowed that they’ll put any man who sexually harasses her in his place.
Post widowhood, she has started working in the paddy fields of West Bengal. She has four sons, the two older sons are working. After her younger sons reach adulthood, she wishes to relocate to Mumbai, where she’ll work as a domestic helper.
In West Bengal, the rate for the same work is less. She feels that this will help her save money for herself in old age and also upgrade her family’s financial condition.
As of now, apart from her current income, her parents and elder sons help her financially. Had she not dropped out of school after Class 3, she could have had a brighter career.
The greatest problem she currently faces is loneliness. She says, “I deeply miss my late husband. I cry every day while remembering him. My parents provide a shoulder to cry on. They’re very consoling. I don’t wish to remarry and my family respects my wish.”
I lost my father when I was eight years old. My mother raised three children along with the help of my maternal grandparents. She never compromised on the quality of education.
We were enrolled in one of the best schools and colleges in the city. She hired the best private tutors for us. We were all bought expensive reference books which immensely helped in our studies.
My mum sacrificed a lot but not buying any costly clothes and commodities for herself. We had to curtail on buying toys, expensive attire and eating out. We went on budget trips to nearby places.
Our lifestyle, of course, underwent a radical change from the times when my father was alive, and we were touring the world with him. My mum taught Sanskrit in college, during a time when college teachers didn’t have a high pay in West Bengal.
I regret not going on to do my Masters in English. I had cleared B.A. in English Honours with good marks and had I completed M.A, I could have opted for teaching in college.
That would have ensured a much better salary than the payment I am now receiving as a journalist. As a single 38-year-old woman from a middle-class family, I do have my share of problems.
In Mumbai, which is one of the friendlier Indian cities towards single women, I am hardly annoyed with personal questions regarding my personal status.
However, whenever I visit my hometown Kolkata, I’m annoyed with stupid queries on why I am unmarried.
My mum is on pension now and at times takes up translation work. With her pay, my salary and the rent we receive from a flat of ours which I have rented out, we pay all our bills and can afford to spend on a few leisure and entertainment activities.
We, however, cannot afford to go on holidays, on shopping sprees and indulging ourselves in salons. I do miss out on the travel part.
At times, I feel irritated when some rich people taunt me for not having a more extravagant lifestyle. I feel greatly concerned about my financial future and am trying for writing assignments which pay higher and to cut down on expenses so that I can save more.
There was a time when I didn’t know how to deal with loneliness. Now, I don’t feel too lonely. My rabbit and a spiritual group which I have joined have greatly worked towards alleviating my loneliness.
My friends have got busy with their lives, especially after marriage and parenthood, so I don’t bank on them for constant company.
Taking into consideration that safety and security reasons may be a problem for a single woman in India, I have bought a flat in a very well guarded society, in the heart of a busy bustling neighbourhood.
I live with a full-time maid, who is very reliable and has been appointed only after a thorough background check. The main door has a safety window.
I hardly miss the presence of a man in my life. I feel that I am now much happier than the times I’ve been in bad relationships.
I am not vigorously searching for a soul mate. If marriage happens, I’ll be happy though. However, if my desirable partner doesn’t come along, I’d rather be single.
What I miss most in my life though is a child. I don’t think that I am ready for adoption as my earning isn’t sufficient to raise a child. Nor do I have the time or human support to help me raise a child.
I have faced sexual harassment from men, who love to target single women. The worst case was when a married co-worker of mine in his mid-sixties, gave me great grief for having spurned his advances.
He went on defaming me at workplaces. He had told me, “You hardly have any choice but to accept whichever man comes to you, as you are a single Indian woman above 30.”
Also, conservative India at large is prejudiced when they see a single woman living all by herself. In cosmopolitan Mumbai, where people are used to seeing single independent women, this discrimination is less. However, in the town of Vasai, where I live, this bias is quite strong.
For instance, if I go to watch a film in a multiplex in Mumbai, those selling tickets have given me a seat besides other women or a family, even if I don’t request them to do so as they know that I will not want to sit beside stags. Never have I been harassed in a Mumbai multiplex.
However, when I have requested for the same in a Vasai multiplex, I have received the answer, “Good women are married. They never come alone to watch a film in Vasai. Bad women like you come to watch a movie all alone for obvious reasons. We cannot help women with nefarious motives like you.”
I tried to explain to them that I live all alone and nor am I in college that I can come with a group of friends. So, I have no option but to see a film alone.
The reply I got was, “Then you shouldn’t watch films at all but stay at home and cook instead, as that’s what a chaste Indian woman does.”
I told them that I am a journalist who covered the film beat and interviewed stars. So, I couldn’t afford to stay home to cook and clean all day ‘to prove my chastity’.
I had to watch films to keep up-to-date with Bollywood if I missed the premiere I had to buy a ticket to watch the show.
I also pointed out to them that a man can come alone to watch a film, without being labelled as characterless. So, why are they being biased towards a woman who was doing the same?
They were surprised to hear that I was a journalist. They didn’t have a logical answer to the gender discrimination point I had made. So they rudely said, “Buy a ticket or get lost.”
Manju’s story/Sociologist’s views
Manju Nichani, Principal of K.C College is also a Sociologist who leads a happy and fulfilled life as a single woman.
A dynamic administrator, a great orator and a practical visionary- she has led K.C College to become one of the best educational institutions in the country. Her enthusiasm for life and her desire to make K.C better than the best are her defining qualities.
She herself says that she has never felt the loss of a husband or children since her students are her children and she would never give up the freedom that she has had to lead her life as she wished.
When asked why single women in India were so often discriminated against, she answered, “Indians generally have a social mindset that women must all get married by a certain age.
If a woman is not married then people automatically assume that there must be a flaw in the woman or that she has suffered from a broken relationship. It is just unimaginable for people to think that a woman might have consciously chosen not to get married.
My parents too had reservations when I told them that I did not wish to marry as I desired to concentrate on my career and did not want to compromise on my freedom to take my own decisions.
Later, however, when I got a good job and secured a good position in my career, they changed their mind and agreed with my decision.
But the startling fact is that despite me now being above 60 years of age, I still get asked why I have not married. People automatically assume that I have missed out on something important in my life by not entering the wedded state.”
When asked about the pressure to get married that every Indian girl faces, Nichani said, “Indians are so preconditioned to marriage that there is a huge psychological pressure upon girls, both in rural and urban areas, to get married. I recently met a young girl who has a flourishing career but is unmarried and this is a source of great worry to her mother.”
“The mother was anxious about who would look after her daughter once the parents passed away, even though the daughter was well off financially. So even in today’s age, the pressure to get married remains the same. However, I feel that things will change as more and more women will themselves wish to remain single and devote more time to their careers.”
To the question whether single women face more of sexual harassment, Manju Nichani replied, “Women, both married and unmarried face sexual harassment. However, a single woman can be targeted more easily as a sexual predator assumes that such a woman has outgrown the conventional age of marriage so has no choice in the matter and will accept his advances.”
As far as issues of loneliness were concerned, she pointed out, “Loneliness is more of an emotional mindset. I live all alone in a big house but have never felt lonely as my friends and relatives are always around. With my friends, I socialize, go on trips together, and on girls’ night out. ”
Regarding financial woes that a single woman faces, Nichani explained, “It’s not as if married women do not face financial issues. There are situations where a woman’s alcoholic husband squanders away all her hard-earned money and she has to provide for her entire family. Today more and more single women are working, even those from underprivileged sections.”
“The problem that still exists is that women don’t stand up for their rights. Women have a legal right to their parental property but do not wish to fight their brothers in court for it, hence give up their right. So women accept subjugation without realizing that they are merely furthering patriarchy.”
On old age and its problems, she said, “Old age issues exist for everyone. Nowadays, there are some very well managed old age homes which have all the facilities. I know of many people who have already registered in such societies and homes and many who are happy living there.”
“Such societies cater exclusively to senior citizens and have excellent health care and recreational facilities. Besides, there are no guarantees in life. A married woman may become a widow and have to live her old age alone or children may be living far away and may not be available or willing to take care of mothers who have grown old.”
Ms Manju Nichani’s clear opinions and positive frame of mind tell us of a strong, passionate woman who is full of the zest for life. She is an example of what every modern woman longs to be – someone who lives life on her own terms and is her own woman.
The Social Worker’s Opinion
Rekha Mody, activist and social worker, a pioneer in women empowerment and founder of the NGO Stree Shakti says, “A single woman’s life is full of challenges. Life becomes more complicated in the autumn of life. We have information that women of age seventy and above carry on working in fields, as vegetable vendors and as workers in unorganised sectors.”
“With age, their earning capacity goes down, their saving is not enough to sustain them. Health issues, isolation and lack of social security makes life tough. The social structure does not offer solutions, it is an area much neglected by civil societies and the Government, both central and state. The new ageing policy of India should look into this sector seriously.”
The Psychologist’s Opinion
Dr Cecilia Chettiar. Head of Department of Psychology, MNW College, Mumbai, agrees that single women are socially discriminated in India. She says, “India definitely is more closed than progressive nations when it comes to accepting a divorced or single woman. In India, a major problem of single women is facing the world outside.”
“If you’re in metro it’s still manageable, but in the smaller cities, single women are looked down upon, especially if they are divorced. The lack of social support and the gossip behind their backs makes it very difficult for them to survive on a day to day basis. The typical caricature of the eccentric single spinster who can’t get along with others is however slowly receding.”
Regarding mental health problems linked to singlehood in women, she says, “Companionship remains a big challenge. What it boils down to is how complete the woman feels by herself. If she is unhappy with being single then she can face a range of psychological problems with low esteem and depression topping the list.”
She agrees that finance may be an area of concern for a single woman. She explains, “Financial security is primary. Not having to worry about who will provide medical and financial support until her last breath takes away a big part of the woman’s worries.”
“So it is important for women to have a solid financial plan, a home of her own, basic independence in terms of transportation, investments and a set of trustworthy people whom she can fall back on during emergencies. If there are children involved, the accompanying financial pressures make life challenging for the mother and the child.”
Solutions for the problems single women face in India
- Parents must be motivated to educate their daughters as well as they educate their sons. Education is now a fundamental right in our country, children are now entitled to free education in a neighbourhood school till elementary school, making it easier for economic unprivileged families to send their kids to school. If more women complete higher education, we’ll see more of them with high salaried jobs.
- Many women are not allowed to work despite the fact that they are highly educated. Whereas we have national campaigns on the need to educate the girl child, awareness should also be spread that a woman who is willing to work should not be forced not to do so.
- Many Indian men prefer homemakers as a wife. Often in-laws also insist on the same. At times, women themselves leave their jobs after marriage if their husband earns well. If the marriage falls apart or the woman is widowed, she may have a hard time getting a job matching their qualifications because of a career gap.
- Women go on drawing the short end as far as inheriting property is concerned. There need to be national campaigns encouraging that women are not disfavoured as far as inheritance rights are concerned.
- Single women need to wisely plan their finances, try hard to save regularly and be cautious about expenditures.
- For single who miss the presence of a child in their lives, may consider the option of motherhood either through a sperm bank or single parent adoption. This may only be done if one has ample finances to raise a child and can devote time towards him/ her. Else, one may spend quality time with nephews and nieces. One may also engage in a profession or hobby which allows constant interaction with kids, like teaching or volunteering at an orphanage.
- The solution to security problems is to live with roommates, and/or a protective dog (provided you can afford one) in a safe and secure neighbourhood and not to divulge personal details to strangers.
- Feeling lonely is just a state of mind. A psychologically strong woman is not likely to face the same. Living with people or pets, keeping busy and engaging in social activities reduces chances of loneliness.
- India still has a long way to go before the nation becomes kinder to single women. Parents need to teach their kids right from childhood that they should respect women of all relationship statuses. The point, however, is that the parents themselves need to be educated in this regard.
- Remarriage or getting into a relationship should be a viable social option for widowed and divorced women. Irrespective of that the fact whether the woman decides to head to the altar again, opt for a live-in relationship or have a no-strings-attached relationship; it would be nice if she’s not pestered with questions or judged or misjudged based on her personal choices.