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BANGALORE — Ask any woman to describe marriage in a few words, and she is most likely to say: romance, respect, understanding, support, care. The reality of this relationship for a sizeable number of women, unfortunately, is marred with violence, deceit, exploitation and other traumas.
Yet a woman in India cannot imagine her life without matrimony because the patriarchal social structures do not allow it, and even if she is caught in a bad marriage, it is difficult for her to get away. A woman, however, can definitely lead a fulfilling life without a husband, if she chooses to — and Nagamma and other women are proof of it.
A barely literate Dalit, Nagamma, who is around 45 years old, has consciously veered from marriage even though she belongs to a poor family from a village in the state of Karnataka, where women generally can’t escape the legal institution of husband and wife.
“My mother passed away when I was 10,” said Nagamma, who as a Dalit has only one name. “After that, my father started drinking and gradually became an alcoholic. I was barely 14 when he, too, passed away. Although I had older sisters, they had gotten married and had their own families. So I had to bring up my younger sister and brother, and to make ends meet I took to doing daily wage work.”
Why did she decide to remain single?
“When one of my older sisters started facing violence within her marriage I decided to never get married,” Nagamma said.”I didn’t want to become vulnerable and go through that kind of trauma. Moreover, when she chose to leave her husband along with her child, I backed her.”
Nagamma became a rights champion for women after linking up with the Swaraj Foundation, a network of grass-roots social workers that extends across 14 districts in Karnataka state. The organization assists disadvantaged children and women in accessing their rights and entitlements, among other services.
As part of her work, Nagamma has become a crusader specializing in stopping child marriages in her area — a risky job, standing up to long-held traditions and beliefs. Sometimes, the weddings of child brides are held at undisclosed locations and at odd hours to avoid hurdles or opposition. Even as the local police and government officials support Nagamma, she and her colleagues are required to do a lot of follow-up and to ensure that the children or their supporters are not subject to backlash.
Among the few girls whose weddings Nagamma and her colleagues have stopped is Bhavani, 17. She refused to get married to a 28-year-old man in Tamil Nadu, another Indian state, although her parents and other relatives were keen to see her do so.
“We live in a small home in a low-income neighborhood close to a busy bus stop in southern Bengaluru,” Bhavani said, referring to the Indian name of Bangalore. “I am the first in my family to pursue higher education. I have five sisters whom I encourage to study as much as possible. Whereas my parents and grandparents were initially unhappy with my rejecting the match they had got, they are now happy that I did not get married.
“Currently, I am studying for a diploma in electronics at an institute in Hosur, a town close to Bengaluru. My major regret is that I was not able to save the life of the girl who got killed during a fight with the man I had rejected after she was compelled to marry him.”
Whereas it is rare to find a Nagamma, who has consciously stayed away from traditional matrimony, it’s also heartening to see women like Geeta Shinde, to walk away from a bad marriage. A visually disabled woman from Bangalore, she seems much younger than 55 years old. She was keen to study further and work; instead, marriage was forced on her in 1981 when she was just 20. Shinde’s husband, who worked at a five-star hotel in Chennai, had suggested then that she take a beautician’s course. After she completed the program, she got a job at the same hotel as him.
Shinde gained a positive reputation for her abilities and diligence and was sought after by wealthy clients. As often happens, her husband was not happy with the attention and appreciation she received. He began to verbally abuse and physically assault her and turned into an alcoholic. Yet Shinde continued working to keep running her household and raising their daughter. One morning, her husband emptied a bottle of acid on her. Luckily, she poured water on herself, which prevented damage to her body below the neck, but her eyes were destroyed.
She got legally separated from her husband in 1988 and returned to Bangalore with her daughter. She learned yoga and even managed to demonstrate her makeup and hair-care skills to other cosmeticians. She trained as a telephone operator and is now working in a bank. In her spare time, she trains people in meditation voluntarily.
Shinde strongly believes that children, especially girls, need to be educated so that they are independent and do not feel the need to marry or stay in a marriage just to sustain themselves.
“Do not try to realize your unfulfilled dreams through your children or force them to get married,” she said. “It is our responsibility to clothe, feed, educate and look after our children but only to a certain age.”
Honoring these brave women and others at a public function held in Bangalore recently, Dr. H. Prema, who teaches literature at a college nearby, was “speechless with admiration,” she said. She knows full well about standing up to traditions. With her sisters, Dr. Prema, who is in her 30s, has defied rituals that discriminated against menstruating girls and women in her region. She wants to get married only if she finds a suitable, accepting and progressive partner.
This article was produced by Women’s Feature Service in Delhi, India.