The female identity is built around marital status in our society. It is extremely difficult for women to leave abusive relationships and live on their own, or choose to lead a single, unpartnered life.

Women walk on streetImage for representation
Features Gender Monday, November 28, 2022 - 16:49

Shraddha Walkar. Aiswarya Unnithan. Vismaya Nair. Countless other women whose names we might or might not know have lost their lives to intimate partner violence. Every time the death of a woman due to domestic abuse hits the headlines, several questions are raised: What happened? Why didn’t she leave? Was there dowry involved? Did she not have a job?

But one thing we hardly consider is if she had the privilege to lead a single, unpartnered life. Would she have been given a house on rent? Would she have been incessantly approached by men for sexual favours? Would her choice to stay unpartnered have been respected by her family and neighbours? Would her parents have been subjected to unrelenting questions about when she was planning to ‘settle down’ again?

In patriarchal societies, a lot of emphasis is placed on the institution of the family — especially marriage. This increases social and emotional pressure on people to fall in line, get married by a certain age, and ensure that the relationship sustains. While the pressure to fall in line is experienced by every individual, the intensity is not the same. A cisgender heterosexual man has enough social and legal sanctions to live the way he chooses, unlike cisgender women and LGBTQIA+ persons.

The female identity, specifically, is built around the marital status of a woman, and female bodies are institutionalised, chastised, policed, and positioned as sites to fortify existing gender power structures and morality. In such a socio-legal context, it becomes exceedingly daunting for women to walk out of relationships that do not serve them, or to stay unpartnered. “Even if I leave the marriage, I do not think my husband will let me and the children live in peace. He will take my daughters away from me and I cannot put myself through that,” says 33-year-old Anjali (name changed) from Kerala’s Kasaragod.

“Also, I cannot put my mother through more,” she adds. Anjali is married and has two daughters, and her husband has been abusive for several years now. “She was a single mother after my father abandoned us, and struggled a lot to raise me and my sisters and get us married. Today, she lives in a small house allotted by the panchayat. If I leave my husband, I will have to burden her once again,” Anjali says.

“My husband abuses me physically and emotionally, but he is a good father to the girls. I only earn Rs 15,000 a month, and I cannot sustain with that amount while also providing for my children. So I stay in the marriage,” she says.

Anjali’s story is one repeated by several women who choose to stay in abusive relationships because they inherently believe there is no other option but to continue. Senior lawyer and human rights litigant Sandhya Raju says that many women marry just so that they do not have to navigate the social insecurities of being single. “A single woman in her 30s spoke to me about this once. She had very meagre means of sustenance and lived in a colony with her mother. After her mother passed away, she would hear people knock at her door late into the night, soliciting sexual favours. She felt she would be more secure if a man was present in the house, so she married a widower,” Sandhya recalls.

“The husband turned out to be abusive, and forced her to transfer ownership of her house to him,” Sandhya says. “She eventually felt it was better to live alone than with an abuser and filed for divorce.” However, nothing in the law actually helps women who choose to stay single. In fact, the law and bureaucracy in the country actively discourage singledom.

Single women and the state

India has approximately 72 million single women, including unmarried women, single mothers, divorcees, separated women, and widows. Single women are most often considered as a group of people in transition, who will soon be married or partnered in some manner. Even their categorisation is contingent on their past, present, or prospective relationship status. It is very important to underline here that single women are not considered a population with specific needs by governments.

Though single women contribute to the workforce and are increasingly becoming financially independent, their relationship status is considered temporary since the expectation is that they would be partnered sooner or later. Hence, they are seldom listed as heads of families in government documents though they run their households by themselves. Most documents required to prove identity mandate parental address, and the mention of a guardian or a spouse. This is of course not the case with adult men, who are seldom asked if they have a guardian.

With specific respect to the law, women choosing to stay unpartnered or leave problematic relationships have very little facilitation at their disposal. The Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 is a civil law that provides protections for women facing violence, including intimate partner violence; however, it does not criminalise it.

Mini (name changed) from Kerala’s Thrissur district says, “I had an inter-faith marriage. My father was ostracised by our family and community because he participated in my marriage ceremony. He was not fully in support of my choice, but he agreed because he loves me. He has been humiliated in public on many occasions because he chose to associate with me.”

“But my husband is not the person I thought he was but I cannot speak about this to my father. I now have two children and if I dare leave my husband, I only have my father to fall back on. He will have to endure more insults and humiliation if I go back home. Even if my marriage kills me, I have no other option but to hold on,” she says.

Analysing the relationship between caste, gender, and singledom, researcher Madhavi Kamble writes that single Dalit women have been disproportionately affected especially by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike in urban spaces, rural women who are divorced or widowed are forced to do domestic chores and abide by the rules laid down by the male head of the family who supports them. It is very difficult for them to find employment opportunities and even if they do, situations like the pandemic have rendered them penniless, forcing them to take loans and spiral into an abyss of debt. Their caste location only adds to their social isolation and lack of resources, thereby jeopardising them further.

In the case of divorced women, though they have access to legal provisions like alimony (monthly financial aid from the ex-spouse) as well as settlement (one-time payment as compensation), it is questionable as to how far they are able to avail such benefits. Women seeking alimony or settlement are often branded as ‘gold diggers’, and are weighed by the social burden of having to fend for themselves because that is what ‘self-respecting women’ are expected to do. This attitude completely ignores the time, emotional labour, and energy invested by these women in their marriages.

Women who have lost their spouses and therefore choose to remain unpartnered face similar biases. Families look at marriage as a transfer of ownership of the woman and hence, once the ‘owner’, i.e, the husband, passes away, families seldom help the widow in question. She is either pressurised into another marriage or under duress to find means of employment and sustain herself as well as her children.

Advocate Sandhya recalls her interactions with a widowed woman with children, who was harassed by her in-laws. “They wanted to get rid of her and cut ties with her so they could divide the family property among themselves. Though we were able to obtain a court order to prevent this, the kind of verbal humiliation the woman had to go through was heartbreaking. Her husband’s family tried to slut-shame her, even questioning the paternity of her children. This had been happening for 10 years and despite repeated attempts, the police did not take her concerns seriously,” Sandhya says.

“Even when she was accompanied by a lawyer, it took hours to obtain a receipt for the complaint. A woman who is already so traumatised would seldom have the resilience to wait for so long, enduring so much judgement. This leads to the denial of whatever legal protection is available to women navigating singledom after their partner passes away,” she says. Sandhya mentions how legal intervention also has a lot of bias and most women do not have access to it. “There is very little preparedness to approach a lawyer and get a case registered and fight it. Most women prefer to forget it and move on, unfortunately,” she says.

Two women walking on a bridge
Image for representation. Credit: pixabay/ VPKyriacou

Inappropriate sexual advances

Widows also face social ostracism since they are considered ‘unlucky’, and are sometimes accused of wanting to entice other married men in their circles. Y Suneela (43) who hails from Andhra Pradesh, got married in 1996, when she had just completed her class 10. Her husband, who was employed with the Air Force, passed away six months later, by when she was pregnant with their son. After many trials and tribulations, she managed to avail employment at the clerical level with the Air Force and moved to Bengaluru with the child. “It was very difficult for me because I had language barriers and had not travelled anywhere. I could later relocate to Hyderabad, but I have never felt safe living as a single woman. Since I was young and unpartnered, there have been instances of sexual advances and harassment from people in my close circles under the garb of trying to help me. The help offered to me by most men, including neighbours and colleagues, almost always had something to do with a prospective sexual interaction that they expected from me,” she recalls.

“I started cutting down on friendly conversations and camaraderie because I constantly felt suspicious of people’s intentions. When I was living in Bengaluru, my neighbours — a couple — were very helpful. But one day when I was alone working in my kitchen, the man walked in and tried to molest me. I was shocked and traumatised. I tried to hit him with whatever I could grab. Such instances give a single woman deep-seated trust issues and it makes peaceful coexistence a very distant dream,” she says.

Society’s insistence on families and marriages also makes married women insecure around single women, leading women to have strained relationships with each other. “When we were living in Hyderabad, we were invited to my son’s friend’s house. The boys were schoolmates and I went to their house to be welcomed warmly by the boy’s father and mother. Though the man was genuinely being hospitable, I could sense that his wife was uncomfortable with it since I was a young widow. It suddenly dawned on me that if I was partnered, they both would have respected me equally, and the exchange between me and that man would have been perceived as normal,” Suneela adds.

Laws ‘progressive’, implementation patriarchal

While the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP) recognises the right of a single woman to abortion, as it doesn’t require an adult woman to have consent from a partner to terminate a pregnancy, it doesn’t work well in reality. Medical practitioners continue to shame women seeking abortions, and regularly seek a partner or guardian’s approval even in the case of adult women.

If we look into the status of live-in relationships in India, they are not criminal or illegal. Though the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 does not recognise live-in relationships, the legitimacy of live-in relationships finds root in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which speaks about the right of every individual to choose how they conduct their life. Despite this, women who choose to be in such domestic cohabitation are looked down upon. Any violence they face in such equations, their right to settlement and alimony in case of a breakup, and their rights over offspring from such relationships still lack comprehensive legal cover.

Courts have made contradicting observations when it comes to live-in relationships. In Payal Sharma v. Nari Niketan, AIR 2001, the Supreme Court demarcated law and morality and held that though live-in relationships may not be culturally accepted in all parts of the country, such a partnership is not illegal or criminal. In Indra Sarma v. VKV Sarma (2013), the Supreme Court stated that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act mentions that any domestic relationship in the ‘nature of marriage’ would come under its purview. This, the court observed, includes live-in relationships, and hence, the legal protection against domestic violence as enshrined in the Act would logically also apply to live-in partnerships. Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) also mentions that women who were in a live-in relationship and have subsequently been abandoned by their partner enjoy the status of a wife and are entitled to maintenance.

Nonetheless, in many instances, several Indian courts have also blamed live-in relationships for the breakdown of families and the disintegration of moral values in society. It must be noted here that in such cases, excess blame always falls on the women involved compared to the men. Additionally, the legal legitimacy of live-in relationships stems from how similar the relationship is to a marriage. This means that marriage is still the default to determine whether or not a woman in a relationship is entitled to rights and relief in case of violence or conflicts.

For women facing sexual abuse within marriages, the fact that India does not have a law criminalising marital rape further skews the remedies. In a recent Supreme Court judgement, Justice DY Chandrachud did point out that a man’s act of sexual violence on his wife is rape. But in the absence of explicit criminalisation of the offence, there is little legal recourse to survivors of sexual crimes from their husbands.

In the case of adoption, single women can legally adopt children in India, provided they adhere to the guidelines of the Central Adoption Resources Agency (CARA). On paper, this definitely looks promising, but the question is that in a society where motherhood is glorified and families are sacred, how much social support does a single mother get to raise her child, when even partnered women with biological children find it difficult to push through the judgement and constant reminders of inefficiency.

Cicy, a 34-year-old entrepreneur based in Kochi, speaks about how single women are put in a spot when they try to explore their reproductive rights. “My parents always brought me up to get me married. But I got divorced soon after the wedding, and their solution was for me to remarry. My mother did encourage me to be independent and I started working. Nonetheless, staying with my parents stifled my freedom, and I felt like when I was married my ‘ownership’ was with my spouse, and when I was divorced it reverted to my parents. I was running a baking business at that time which took off, but I really could not share a kitchen with my mother because my workload was increasing. I moved out of their home and that has given me more space,” she says.

“Singledom has affected my reproductive options drastically. I have been considering egg freezing and my doctors did not really guide me comprehensively. I have Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD) and when I got married, the doctors told me to get pregnant and have a baby immediately. Now, looking back, I wish someone had told me about egg freezing at 27 when I got divorced so that I could keep my options open. Even now doctors ask me if I am ‘married’ to figure out whether I’m sexually active, and it is so confusing because I have to explain my past all the time. There are so many women whose relationship status is undefined, and it is important, especially for medical professionals, to be specific,” she says.

“The solution to my desire for babies has always been marriage and that has been absurd to me because finding a compatible partner is not easy. Even if that does not happen, I should be able to have my own options to assert my reproductive rights. I have not thought of being a single mother yet, but I’m sure even if I do decide to be one, it is going to be really hard because society will not make it any easier,” Cicy adds.

Sandhya underlines that single women do not have a specific, solid legal framework. “The law recognises divorced women, widows, and women in live-in partnerships, but what about women who are unpartnered and are in equations that do not fit into any of these categories? Though the Domestic Violence Act can be used to avail protection against marital rape or intimate partner violence, and various kinds of abuse, the legal interpretation is subjective in the sense that it depends on how the petition is framed, how much the complainant opens up about the experience, and how legal strategy is crafted. Ultimately, the legal reasoning is very reflective of how we as a society perceive marriage, how we place women, and how accepting we are of their gendered experiences and agency,” she notes.

“Additionally, police officials and other authorities don’t take women seriously when they speak about violence in relationships. Take the recent case of Shraddha Walkar, for instance. It has now come to light that she complained to the police in 2020 that her live-in partner was abusive and she felt unsafe. But the police brushed it off, and now in 2022, her worst fears have come true and she is no more,” Sandhya says. “This could be because the police feel they do not want to break the family or interfere in the feud of partners, though the violence is extreme. There is also a lot of judgement, shaming, and invalidation that women face when they try to report such crimes. A First Information Report (FIR) may be filed in most cases, but gender-based violence in intimate relationships is so normalised that proper investigations do not often take place,” Sandhya adds.

It is crucial to note that social location and power also play a big role in deciding who among the women who approach the police are heard. “The police are the first point of intervention for women facing any kind of problem and police personnel often lack the sensitivity to handle such issues. They think that women make a mountain out of a molehill, and act as accomplices especially if the man is powerful and belongs to a privileged caste and class. The legal battle becomes even more excruciating when women are up against men with more social and economic capital than them,” says Sandhya.

On being asked whether gender sensitisation in the judiciary would change things, she says that it definitely will, but the outcomes also depend on how receptive individuals are, considering the patriarchal morality we harbour. “To be objective, gender sensitisation at least in Kerala has been happening all over, but the impact has been sparse. We still see slut-shaming and victim blaming in judgements and judicial processes. Though training is an important component, we cannot just conduct gender sensitisation drives and leave it at that. It has to be a sustained process. I have also been part of conducting such sessions and I see the same people coming again and again and very little actually changing. The outcomes need to be monitored and evaluated, and accountability must be ensured,” she asserts.

Women standing by the beach
Image for representation. Credit: pixabay/ Alanbedding

Social infrastructure, vulnerability, and security of single women

Choosing to remain single or walking out of relationships raises many apprehensions in women ranging from financial security, emotional safety, social sustainability, and fear of violence from the previous partner. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a majority of the crimes against women fall under the category of ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’, followed by sexual assault, kidnapping, and abduction. Walking out of such socially and morally cushioned relationships is very difficult for most women, as is the case with Anjali and Mini.

Swetha Shankar, Director of Client Services at the International Foundation for Crime Prevention & Victim Care (PCVC), says that leaving a relationship is a process, not a one-time event. “Very often, the pressures to stay back in a relationship begin with family violence, and are extreme for women and queer individuals. This includes adjusting to the violence with no accountability on the perpetrator. Survivors are gaslit to believe that if they stop questioning or behave differently, the situation will be better. The immediate response to a woman who wants to leave a marriage is never acceptance, it is always counselling, de-addiction, etc. With children in the picture, women are even more systemically coerced to stay back. Governmental mechanisms and civil society mechanisms also work on the goal of reconciliation of the family unit. We put all our efforts to save the family, but again, we refuse to place the onus on the perpetrator,” she says.

These factors add to the loneliness and constant feeling of ‘being out of place’ experienced by single women, leading them to believe that there can be no form of community living other than the institution of family that can fulfil their need for social validation, companionship, and emotional safety when they grow old. Therefore, though vulnerability is a universal human emotion, it must be emphasised that the fear of loneliness women experience while choosing to be single is a gendered construct catalysed by our collective insistence on marriage and families, coupled with the lack of social, infrastructural, and political systems that ensure viable alternatives to single women.

“Though on the outside our society is sympathetic towards single women like me, there is not much support that actually flows in when we need it. I bought my own one-room flat on loans with my very limited monthly income of Rs 8,000 because I was always made to feel untethered and vulnerable at rented houses where my privacy, safety, and peace were constantly interrupted,” says Suneela.

The situation is different for men because irrespective of their relationship status, they have access to social spaces, communities, and friendships that continue to thrive, a privilege not available to cisgender women and LGBTQIA+ persons.

Speaking of her experience working with queer individuals, Swetha says what hits them hard is the sudden and absolute lack of support. “They are pressured into cishet marriages. Young queer people who come out also are very emotionally conflicted because their families do not support them, and they feel the yearning for that love. Therefore, community building is important to replace that sense of belonging and emotional safety. The system also tries to criminalise queer individuals when they complain of abuse and the violence is manifold when their gender identity is revealed. Finding a place to stay, a workplace that is sensitive, etc., also add to the chipping away of social support for single queer individuals trying to navigate life,” she says.

Creating a sustainable ecosystem for unpartnered women

It is very important for us as a society to address the fact that women find it unnerving to be on their own, even in cities that are touted to be more cosmopolitan and equipped to house all kinds of populations. The increasing incidence of revenge crimes, intimate partner violence, trafficking, moral policing of single women, and political propaganda that strives to reinforce gender power structures in marriages and domestic partnerships make it emotionally conflicting for women to arrive at a sense of security while they consider their relationship choices.

The lack of financial independence and literacy in money management is another important restricting factor that makes it excruciating for most women to make decisions about relationships. Single women, including those who may have been previously married or in relationships as well as mothers, must be recognised as a group of individuals who have very different social and emotional anxieties.

“There is also the ‘good victim narrative’ for the woman to be sanctioned by society to leave a problematic relationship. We wait for the violence to escalate. It is hard enough to decide to leave and if you indeed leave, sticking to that choice is harder. Even in the case of working women, they are set back many years in their careers and may be left with no money since the money may also be stuck with the husbands. Certificates are held hostage by ex-spouses to interrupt women from being employed. Many survivors then feel it is better to go back to the perpetrators. The onus is then on all of us to make sure women feel secure enough to walk out of such situations and live as unpartnered individuals in society,” Swetha says.

Along with gender sensitisation through education and social engineering, tangible coping mechanisms like community centres for women to gather at, support groups, shelter homes, and other infrastructure must be made available. With a rising number of individuals choosing to be single, it is also time that we re-examine our social security plans, tax provisions, healthcare infrastructure, and old age care options so that people do not live dreading what lies ahead for them. Single women, especially in older age groups, remain almost invisible in our society. This makes them doubly vulnerable to violence and crimes. Effective monitoring of crimes against women, intervention in moral policing of single women, as well as building awareness about legal rights and curating immediate helplines to reach out to in case of emergencies are very crucial in assimilating the social tools necessary to make women feel safe enough to live by themselves.

Shradha Shreejaya, a consultant with global and regional women’s rights organisations, says, “When we think of single women, we still primarily think of them as crisis management. When the majority of women in this space are fighting to just assert their choices, the conversations about ‘rehab and rescue’ are still in the reactionary space. Of course, it is important to help women out from abuse, but how do single women integrate with society? We need advocacy groups and policy decisions that actively look at normalising and re-integrating single women into society. Housing, healthcare, and livelihood are critical aspects here. It is very important for our institutions to not assume that a single woman is her own liability or her family’s responsibility. We must be able to equip them with what they need to get back on their feet. We should have more resource flow towards bridging the gap that exists between being single and thriving, and governments must enable this resource flow. It is promising to see organisations in the NGO space like ASTHA in Rajasthan, Nazariya QFRG in Delhi, and more recently the Vanaja Collective in Kerala already taking initiatives along these lines.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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