How the Indian System Keeps ‘Single’ Women Dependent on Others
Fathima finds herself stuck in a loop. For almost eight years now, she has struggled to get a physical copy of her PAN card. Like an access key, the PAN number is necessary for opening bank accounts and proving identity. But each time she tries, the 36-year-old is told that her PAN card will be delivered to her parent’s address — an option not available to her.
“I’ve been estranged from my parents,” she says. “We do not see eye to eye, and I cannot reach out to them for help.”
As an unmarried, independent working woman, the “address proof” problem keeps recurring. It’s the same reason she hasn’t even tried to get a ration card or a gas connection; anything feels easier than navigating the bureaucratic maze laid out for single women.
The system wasn’t designed for single women like Fathima. It is as if they are morally condemned for deriving their worth outside patriarchal institutions. The cost? They are denied access to social security and rights — complicating their individual and legal identity.
Proving identity as a single woman
The identity proof problem keeps sending single women “from pillar to post,” Fathima says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
In the case of unmarried women without family support, officially proving identity is difficult. Rental agreements are not accepted as valid identity proofs in some scenarios (for instance, banks); and passports carry parents’ home address. For example, when Fathima tried using her Voter ID card, the bank did not accept that as legitimate identity proof.
For many underprivileged women, ration cards double as identity proof and help them access subsidized food. But women who are separated from their husbands or parents aren’t entitled to the cards anymore, and they struggle to remove their parents’ or former partners’ names. In Odisha, for instance, more than 10 lakh women are estimated to be left out of the food distribution scheme.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests unmarried women face discrimination when applying for loans. According to reports, the probability that they will be asked to have a co-applicant is much higher than a married woman. Although there is no official policy in this regard, the prevailing idea is single women are more likely to default. “Whenever I look for investment options or even a PF withdrawal, it needs a nominee who is a spouse or parents,” says Chittra, 36. “One day, I am not going to have parents too. What happens then? Whose ID am I to submit?”
Shreya*, 39, lost her husband during the pandemic. She was told she needed a “Surviving Member Certificate” — a document allowing the spouse of a person who died due to Covid19 to seek compensation — along with some other documents. But this wasn’t an easy process. Shreya had to make multiple rounds to the office and pay Rs. 2,000 to get the certificate made. Lumbered with debts, the process took 1.5 months. A month later, the Delhi government arbitrarily announced that surviving members would no longer need this certificate.
This insistence on documentation and lack of clarity plague women’s struggle. Coupled with hostile bureaucratic attitudes, an inescapable web is created for widowed women. As Preeti, a social worker with Protsahan, a Delhi-based NGO, notes, “We’re talking about illiterate women who aren’t aware” about processes that will connect them to monetary support, employment, or support systems. The Delhi CM scheme for widowed women, for instance, requires them to get five years of residence proof in Delhi. If someone is living in a rented room, or a jhuggi, the landlord doesn’t allow them to use the rent address. Most have put their village’s, but that excludes them from accessing the scheme.
Or Pramila*, 28, who is still struggling to avail schemes she is entitled to. Due to lacking documentation, she was forced to work around the system; she did sex work only to provide food for her starving children after she lost her husband to Covid19.
“A lady whose husband passed away, where does she go, where does she run around?” Preeti asks. “Single mothers [who lost their husbands] are not told or made aware of how to procure these documents to avail benefits.”
These documents, without awareness about how to get them, only complicate the process.
The category of single women
Legally, the government identifies single women to include widows and separated, divorced, deserted, and unmarried women. However, at a policy level, the term “single” generally only refers to women who are widowed. In other words, all other single women are not recognized as a valid category of individuals, which precludes access to schemes and entitlements. Even for widows, policies don’t always respect their individualism. In Gujarat, for instance, till the law changed in 2018, widows would lose their husband’s pension when their son became an adult.
Why have millions of women been rendered invisible? Meeta Mastani, 53, ventures a guess about why: maybe India doesn’t have enough single women. But that’s not it: In 2001, there were approximately 51.2 million single women; by 2011, this number rose by 39%. Census 2011 also showed single women head nearly 20% of households.
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Instead, the legal blindspot seems to stem from cultural reasons. It’s because “[society] believes in the idea of heteronormative, codified relationships that have some background of institutionalization – which comes through marriage,” Rashi Bhargava, a sociology professor at the University of Delhi, says. The “acceptable” family must have two people of opposite genders, who come together to set up a family and have children. These norms are stricter for women, who are expected to conform to gender constructs; caring and dependence become a “central element of successfully performed femininity,” researchers have argued. Any digression leads to the woman becoming a cultural anomaly no longer deserving of state welfare or protection.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, also notes how single women face biases and discrimination at all fronts: at home, in the community, and in government policy – by virtue of existing in a society “where marriage and motherhood are considered essential for women to gain societal respect.”
In 2016, the Ministry for Women and Child Development released a “comprehensive social protection mechanism” to address single women’s vulnerabilities. But “the term needs to include all categories of single women. So that all single women, and not just widows, can avail the benefits,” say Kumkum Kumar and Joseph Mathai from Action Aid India, an NGO that drafted a policy to support single women.
“Single” is also not a neat category. In some cases, women, who are still legally married, may no longer live with their husbands or may have been abandoned. Shraddha*, 42, found her husband was sexually assaulting their three daughters (ages 5, 6, and 14) and was moved to a safer space with all her daughters with support from Protsahan. In these cases, Preeti says the marginalization, vulnerability, and volatility make it hard for women to access institutional support; “it is more like the husband is dead even if he is alive.”
“Singleness is a socially and culturally constructed category…In the way that gender is done to people, so is singleness,” researchers have argued. For women, their identity relies on their relationship status. Where access to government schemes and entitlements (land rights, child care, pension, etc.) is concerned, the bureaucracy shows a bias towards “conventional families.”
“This society does not want independent women. They don’t know what to do with them,” Meeta says. “They are an inconvenience.”
Singleness and identity
Meeta’s last name on her passport is her ex-husband’s, an association she left behind years ago. The tinted sheets may be a proof of identity globally, but they don’t identify her. When she went to renew her passport recently, an officer circled the word “divorced” in her form. With a derisive look (his face remains plastered in her mind), he told her of the extra steps she will have to take and made her “feel like shit.”
Forms mention the option of choosing “divorced” or “widowed,” but there is no real accommodation in the process for them. Beyond being tokenistic, it is “used as a way to mark you out and treat you badly. It’s a moral regiment,” Meeta points out.
For Fathima, being single is extremely liberating. “Once I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do this myself, that is, live life on my terms, I do not feel beholden to anyone,” Fathima says.
“But the system makes it incredibly difficult.”
In refusing to concede to a constricted familial idea, women are forced into a corner. “I sometimes wonder if life would have been easier if I were married,” Fathima muses. For others, having to see their ex-partner’s name on an official document is emotionally scarring. “It’s obviously hideous,” Meeta says. While she is aware of the process of changing her name, the bureaucratic maze and judgment feel like “torture.” “It’s just a thing on a paper — but I am distancing myself from my own name.”
Meeta doesn’t think all this is a “hiccup” in the system. A hiccup is when something is planned for but still goes awry. But “they just haven’t planned for this. No, they have not provided for women like us.”
Singleness is also looked upon in society with unwarranted pity. But, as Bhargava points out, “there are many women who are choosing singledom as a viable option. It’s not as if they are in this position because fate doesn’t have a partner for them.”
Systemic bias thus ignores the emotional ecosystem that actually supports them — the friendships and other rich emotional bonds. This is an important point to factor in; that “people can survive in relationships that are not sexual, but based on trust and understanding,” would also mean that they don’t need heteronormative bonds to survive. When Fathima was admitted to the hospital a few years ago, policies required a partner or family to be there – both weren’t an option for her. She insisted on giving her workplace colleagues’ numbers, but to no avail. “I understand the policy in case of death or other reasons,” she says. “But the insistence… really pushed me into a corner.”
The system must change to acknowledge these ecosystems by allowing single women to use contacts other than family to access facilities. Earlier this year, NGO The Banyan Tree arranged three ration cards by listing other “sisters” of the organization as family members.
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“The acknowledgment that single women are a subset of the society who exist, not by chance, is powerful,” Bhargava remarks. Schemes like pension and child support and access to food, housing, livelihood lie on the other side of this acknowledgment. But a lack of clear policy, limited awareness, and prejudice become sharp barbs holding single women back.
Governance and legal policy must start with a nod to the identities and challenges of single women. Recently, Tamil Nadu decided to consider single women a “family,” a decision that would entitle them to ration cards.
Another way to tackle the issue, Mathai and Kumar note, is for women to be able to self-identify as “single.” Right now, this process is regulated by officials and requires systemic checks. Divorced or widowed women in states like Tamil Nadu, for instance, are required to give a written self-declaration, and then their house is audited by an officer, for them to be considered single. Or the divorced woman needs a copy of a court order to remove her husband’s name from documentation — mechanisms that again involve lots of bureaucracy. Instead, if in villages, for instance, the Gram Panchayat could certify the status of single women with the supervision of local government workers, like teachers, nurses, or aanganwadis, it could lift a portion of the logistical weight. In urban areas, this could be done with the help of NGO workers and municipal ward members. Single women, in other words, ought to be considered as constituting a single household by their own testimony.
A lack of financial literacy becomes an added factor that makes single women dependent on their brothers, fathers, or other men in the family. “That could be detrimental,” Bhargava says; they know something very intimate about you, and that knowledge could be very easily misused. For single women, thus, the goal is to work towards asserting one’s legal and financial agency.
To eliminate the bias involved while accessing the system, experts recommend “a single-window system”: a mechanism to streamline information about all schemes, social security benefits, and policy interventions. It would help people access information and identify documents in a more targeted way. A corollary to this could be to place limited importance on documents. In the case of single women-led households, the ideal set-up would be to provide ration cards, job cards, and other relevant documents under the woman’s name.
“All schemes and programmes need to be designed to sustain the life, livelihoods, and property of women as an independent legal entity,” Kumar and Mathai note. The legal recognition will allow them to secure documents – availing access to rights and entitlements.
For now, civil society groups like CORO India, Protsahan, and countless others help women get connected to government schemes through workshops on their rights, documents, and support systems.
But the system must be self-contained. This becomes imperative now more than ever as single women are not a “residual category” anymore. “People are becoming a part of this category by choice,” says Bhargava. “You then have to take into account their aspirations and desires.”
For millions of single women, the desire is to be seen.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.