Whether it is a natural or man-made disaster, the vulnerable sections of the society are the first to get hit. The Corona outbreak put the spotlight on the issue of daily subsistence, mental health, general health of families and millions of people across the country.
On June 4, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare announced that 1,07637 people tested positive for the pandemic virus in the country and 6,075 lost their lives to it. In a seemingly desperate effort to preemptively slow the virus’s spread in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a nationwide lockdown from March 24, for 21 days. Later it was extended up to 3rd May 2020, then it was extended up to 31st May 2020. Now our nation is in 5th lockdown which will be going on until 30th June 2020. But the ill-planned effort rendered lakhs of socially and physically vulnerable sections of the society around the country jobless, unsafe, helpless, and hungry.
Social media exploded with viral pictures and comments. One said, “passport brings the virus but ration card suffers”. An illustration captioned ‘Lockdown is not same for all’ showed a rich family taking selfies with new dishes and a poor family sitting worried about food. Another meme shows a picture of a snow-white happy emoji telling his bulged tummy not to come out during lockdown, alongside the picture of an emaciated body with a big lock on its shrunken stomach. In the first picture we see the irony of the rich battling the bulge due to inactivity during lockdown; in the second, we see the stark contrast of marginalized communities struggling to survive on a daily basis as the lockdown impacted their means of livelihood.
News channels show thousands of migrant labourers with their families walk hundreds of kilometers to their home from distant corners of the country, without food and money. Some states greeted migrants who returned in inhuman and degrading ways. For instance, the Bareilly administration in UP gave an open group bath of sodium hypochlorite to them.
Lockdown affected several social groups and left them extremely helpless and vulnerable. Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, lower class Christian, Pasmanda and other minorities, internally displaced groups, rural migrants, urban poor migrants, cancer patients, HIV/AIDS patients, sex workers, physically disabled, farmers, aged, house-makers, non-institutionalised destitutes, and many more marginalized communities have all been suffering. However, a little noticed and extremely vulnerable group is of single women. ‘Singleness’ as a cross-cutting factor that exposes women to exploitation across all the above groups is a matter highlighted in this article.
Being a research scholar working on the subject of caste, gender and Dalit women, I have highlighted some issues faced by Dalit single women during the lockdown. I collected data about the plight of Dalit single women over phone, talking to renowned social activists, mainly from the Marathwada region. I have had detailed conversations wih Ashok Tangade, Seeta Bansod and research scholar Maya Bansode. I also tried phone interviews of Dalit single women but the scholars I contacted were unable to establish rapport with them in the time I had. Also, they were reluctant to speak on this sensitive issue.
According to the 2011 census, there are 5 states that are listed as having most single women. 12 million single women inhabit Uttar Pradesh; the greater section has never been married, the second state with most single women is Maharashtra, 6.2 million and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh at 4.7 million. In rural areas there are 44.4 million single women, which is nearly 62% of single women in India.
In Indian society, women who are unmarried, divorced, widowed, separated, deserted/abandoned, half-widows, and those who have left their husbands are given a ‘deficit identity’, which gets worse because of their cultural social milieus, because of natural and manmade disasters, because of religious mores, and because of various features of the day-to-day life of single women in general and single Dalit women in particular.
Notably, there is a significant population of single women in rural areas, who are out of the purview of the academia, research and policy interventions, and are also the neglected keel of society during the pandemic crises. Telephonic conversations with social activists working in Marathwada’s rural areas reveal harsh ground realities. Though some NGOs, political leaders, charitable trusts, volunteers and social activists are providing some groceries, it is nominal and fragmented aid and has not ended their lockdown survival crises.
Help from political leaders is restricted to their political territory; whereas, NGOs help only within their restricted working area. Also, they have helped only as per their interest and not on a humanitarian basis. And yet, huge numbers of the needy are deprived of this aid and Dalit Single women fall in this category.
Gender and caste patriarchy work in subtle ways. Society tends to be more considerate towards widows, than separated, abandoned, or divorced women. If a widow has children, she mostly stays in her in-laws’ house because of various reasons. One is that she is unlikely to get marriage proposals as few would accept her with her children. Two, women sacrifice their personal physical or mental needs, and their wishes and freedom because of the patriarchal glorification of motherhood. Rural Dalit widows are struggling to survive in their families. In the patriarchal structure, the husband plays a vital role in getting work and bringing daily wages to the household. Items like like sugar, oil and groundnuts are bought with the daily wages and the food is prepared by the wife. But in the case of the Dalit widow, she faces several challenges for being a widow. She is the sole head and bread earner of her family. She has to struggle to get work. As most Dalits are landless, the Dalit widow goes to work as a daily wager in the farms of upper caste landlords, making her dependent on them. Also, being the single head of a landless family she does not have surplus stock of grain.
Now under lockdown, the Dalit widow does not get work. Her earnings have stopped. But as she has to feed her family, she has started borrowing money on interest from landlords. This could lead to thousands of single women and their entire families becoming bonded labour on the landlord’s farm to pay off their debts.
In the patriarchal system, becoming a single woman after leaving the husband, or being abandoned is stigmatised since ancient times. In rural areas, where geographical and socio-cultural conditions are different from urban areas, single women are mostly illiterate and do not get well-paying jobs and also have to bear the responsibilities of raising their children. The natal family gives them shelter to stay. Therefore, they are bound to perform household work, willingly or unwillingly, and also do farm labour for daily survival. They face two socially crippling disadvantages of severe financial crisis and living without a husband, and they are dependent on daily wages to meet personal expenses.
Even during the lockdown, there is no sympathy or empathy for single women, mainly because of the prejudiced attitude that blames her as responsible for her singleness. The single woman is seen as an extra burden for her natal family because she does not get daily wages during lockdown. In effect, she feels she’s under a patriarchal lockdown. She cannot have food when she feels hungry. Her natal family gives her a sense of being dependent. They make her feel she is intruding into their family privacy. A single woman’s lack of education and her lack of income under lockdown restrictions make her helpless and vulnerable, affecting her physical and psychological health.
Even if the Central government transfers 500 Rs to the accounts of women, there remain many questions. Will this nominal help keep a Dalit single woman from starvation, physical and mental harm from her natal or in-laws’ family, or from her home? How can she be protected from bonded labour on the landlord’s farm to pay off her debt and exploitation by landlords , who dominate the sexuality of Dalit single women and reinforce the notion of Dalit single women as objects of sexual desire and violation.The government needs to come up with sensitive plans and policies for Dalit single women.
Madhavi Kamble is from Maharashtra. She is a Ph.D scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research topic is ‘Status of Dalit Single Women of Rural Beed: The Lived Experiences’. She has worked in human rights based NGOs, and also in ICDS in Anganwadi training section.