The population of single women in rural India above the age of 20 increased by over one crore between 2001 and 2011. An analysis of census data shows that while the general population of women in rural India increased by 20% over the decade, the number of single women in rural areas increased by 30%. Single women in rural India actu ally account for 62% of the total population of single women in the country.
Widows account for the highest proportion of single women in rural India, followed by those who are either divorced or separated, and those who have never been married.
Rural India’s single women paint a picture of both intense struggle and emancipation. Many women do not marry young, opting to study further or join the job market, resulting in an increase in the number of single women in their 20s. On the other hand, many have been deserted by their husbands, a category not adequately reflected by the census which does however reveal data on women who are separated or divorced. The widespread long-distance migration of men from rural India.“Many do not return for years, leading to virtual separation from their wives.Many co-habit with other women or marry once again,“ says Patel. “Often a migrant man working in a city may end up living in with a working woman in the city . This benefits him economically .“ She adds that many migrant men do not send money home to their wives in villages, leading to their further impoverishment. (Women form the largest proportion of labourers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Patel points out.) On the other hand, many women in villages, including those who are single, may not have the opportunities to migrate elsewhere. To explain the census numbers, she also points to the possibility that men may be dying earlier in villages -especially given the incidents of farmer suicides.
While women would earlier suffer silently through domestic abuse, parents are now more accepting if they walk out of abusive marriages and return home an umbrella body of local self-governments. She points to the penetration of television in rural areas, and of serials that talk of the perils of sending one’s daughter back to an abusive husband.
Meanwhile, the large number of single women in their early 20s may well be a good sign. The 20-24 age group accounts for the largest number of single women in rural India. Over 60% of single women in this age group have never been married, shows the 2011 census data.These women account for 24% of all rural women in this age group, a 7% increase since 2001.
Young women in rural areas are increasingly exposed to mass media such as television, which has helped shape their views. They no longer want to get married early, but would rather study further or get a job.
She talks of traditional pockets of UP and Punjab where women are no longer forced to marry young. In conservative Marwari Aggarwal families, I have now seen women as old as 28-29 who are unmarried and live with their parents. There was a time when this was virtually unheard of.
An increasing number of young women are finding themselves jobs and contributing economically to their household. This, too, makes it more socially acceptable for them to remain at home and not get married early .