According to the 2001 census, 7.4 per cent of the female population of India is “single”. There were 3,43,89,729 widows in India, and 23,42,930 divorced/separated women – a total of 3,67,32,659 single women. This figure is likely to increase with the inclusion of “customarily” separated women and women whose husbands are missing.’

A woman in Sonitpur (Assam) who was separated from her husband said that she starves for seven-eight days every month. She earns Rs 50 in a day and can only afford rice and salt. She can’t afford to eat meat or fish.

If she ever skips work, she has nothing to take home to feed her daughter. On days she works in someone else’s house, they give her the leftovers from their meals – she lies to them that she cannot eat it as it has too much chilli powder, just so she can save it and take it home to her daughter.

Women who are alone despite living spouses are even more discriminated against in a patriarchal society.

They are described as women “even more despised…in a twilight zone of neither being respectably married nor widowed – especially those who have themselves left their partners”.

Many married women are victims of abuse, or tolerating violence, physical and mental cruelty, unable or under-confident to rescue themselves from such a situation. The few women who are able to muster the courage to escape such dehumanising conditions rarely receive any support from the larger society or even their natal families.

“Parents are often unwilling to accept a married daughter who leaves her husband, and therefore, a woman is trapped having nowhere to go if she breaks ties with her husband’s home.” Some women, however, may altogether be deprived of choice if they are “abandoned” by their husbands.

Remarriage amongst such women is also rare as a consequence of the dictates of customary practices, which seek to control women’s sexuality while allowing men free access to remarry for the sake of their progeny and lineage. In some cases, women do not get remarried for fear of having to leave behind their children from the first marriage.

A Tiwa tribal woman in Assam, aged 35, looked older than her age. She separated from her husband after he married another woman, and used to work as a daily wager in the house across from her own. One day, in the absence of his wife and child, the owner of the house sexually assaulted her and made her pregnant. Five months later, when she was visibly pregnant, the villagers learnt of the incident and forced him to marry her.

The night they were married, he and his first wife took her to the hospital and made her undergo an abortion. They would beat her and starve her, not allowing her to leave the house.

She bore this for seven months, until she finally managed to leave, and came home to her natal home. She works as a daily wager now and can support herself but her humiliation continues. When she passes by her ex-husband’s house, his first wife and he spit at her and taunt her, encouraging others to do the same.

They even filed a case against her for stealing their household utensils. Even her father and brothers blame her for what happened and ask her repeatedly to leave but as she is earning for herself, she has managed to remain in her natal home.

The ability of women to negotiate the option of a formal divorce and compensation is severely constrained by their unequal position within the family unit and the larger society as well as due to their marginal awareness of the court procedures and prohibitive litigation cost.

Moreover, society at large continues to view divorced men and women differently, according vastly greater acceptance and freedom to the former.

One woman in Darrang, who had separated from her husband, shared that she earns between Rs 20 to Rs 100 a day and survives by working in the agricultural fields in the summer and raising chickens in the winter. She worked for 10 days straight before Eid to earn Rs 150 a day so she could buy clothes and sweets for her son and daughter. She borrows money for her medical expenses from some rich families who live nearby. She then works for them to pay off the debt.

Many of the women who remain single do so out of personal choice or as a consequence of family circumstances or a mixture of both. The early death of parents and the need to educate younger siblings or to look after children of widowed siblings have also been identified as contributory factors. Irrespective of whether the reasons for their unmarried status are circumstantial or voluntary, these women are routinely condemned for defying the conventions of society.

The status of both employed and unemployed never-married women is poor and characterised by insecurity.

Employed women, despite their financial contributions, often perceive themselves to be a burden on their families. Women belonging to this group contribute a bulk of their earnings towards the maintenance of their families, reserving little for themselves.

Unemployed unmarried women on the other hand face more problems as a consequence of their financial dependence. They are made to feel like an economic burden and are often subjects of castigation and ill treatment. Outside the home, society either sees them as sexually available or socially unequal, or both.

In Assam, a group of women who had remained single explained that it was a marked sense of responsibility towards family after the loss or illness of a parent or sibling that compelled them to discontinue schooling or higher education. Living either with their parents or brothers, they manage the affairs often as unacknowledged breadwinners of the house.

A woman, after a dominant-caste lover spurned her, spent her life educating her brothers but the brothers were ungrateful. A sense of betrayal and hurt among these women routinely demoralises them. Even if they so desire, thinking about marriage is not an option. “There is a right age to marry. Once you cross that, society mocks you, they call you ‘boodhi’ (old), ‘besha’ (prostitute)!” said one woman.

Aged 30 years, a quarry worker in Assam was a victim of this socially prescribed “right age.” Given the prevalence of child marriage in Assam, the young woman, who did not initially marry at 18, was later deemed unworthy of marriage altogether. Through her adolescent years, she had assumed responsibility of the natal family after her mother’s death and had lived with her brother. The woman was deeply traumatised and expressed a wish to marry in order to escape the sexual violence her brother was inflicting on her.

Contributing writers: Harsh Mander, Agrima Bhasin, Radhika Jha, Sejal Dand

Excerpted with permission from The India Exclusion Report, 2015, Yoda Press.