‘Don’t wear her clothes, you might also die.’
‘Has she completely lost her shame?’
‘A widow turning up for a wedding in colourful clothes is a bad omen.’
At what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, Nirmal Chandel was greeted with these insults instead. It was her brother’s wedding in the year 1994, and the groom trousseau she had purchased with her own earnings for her sibling was termed manhoos (bad luck).
But her brother stood up for her, wore the clothes and even danced with Nirmal.
For this resident of Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, this incident was neither isolated, nor the worst. Nirmal’s husband had died due to a heart attack in 1989, at the age of 30. For a year, she was made to live in a dimly lit room without even a fan. The outcasting of widows is common practice, and Nirmal’s case was no different.
After her husband’s death, she was not allowed to wear colourful clothes, eat with the rest of the family, attend functions or do anything that even remotely resembled a normal life.
To break out of this subjugation, Nirmal decided to take matters into her own hands. She joined Social Upliftment through Rural Action (SUTRA), an NGO where she was trained and hired as an accountant at a monthly salary of Rs 350.
This process of fighting for her own rights and independence has catapulted Nirmal into impacting the lives of more than 16,000 widowed, unmarried and divorced women. In 2005, she formed Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) to lead the upheaval battle and bring policy-level changes.
“Logo ne kaha ki main apne pati ko kha gayi (People told me I had taken my husband’s life). They said I couldn’t bear him any children and my buri nazar (evil eye) had taken his life at such a young age. My own parents refused to stand by me and my in-laws treated me as a burden. I was on the verge of taking my life, but my friend saved me by introducing me to the NGO that was working towards women’s welfare. Once I was independent, I wanted to help others,” Nirmal tells The Better India.
Finding my identity
Nirmal was expecting to get a job at the clerical level at SUTRA, given that she was only a metric pass. To her surprise, she was offered the accountant post.
At the time, she did not know how many zeroes there were in lakhs, and had never seen a cheque or a computer in her life. However, she was willing to learn. And so, over the next 15 years, she learned the ropes of auditing, tallying, accounting and more.
“For the first time, I was allowed to make mistakes. People took interest in me. My inputs and work were valuable. Ours is a small village, so the word soon spread about my work. I was frowned upon and people left no chance to humiliate me. But I was earning and living at the SUTRA shelter so I didn’t care what they said. During this period, several widows approached me to share their issues. Their conditions were worse than mine. Children of the widows were left starved. I really wanted to help them,” says Nirmal.
Meanwhile, her parents, ashamed at their daughter’s new-found independence, asked her to quit her job and offered her a monthly allowance of Rs 500.
“I refused, because as soon as you depend on someone for your financial needs, they tend to behave as if you owe them your life. I knew my parents would restrict my freedom if I took their money. I wanted to build my identity and live freely,” she adds.
When women join hands
In 2005, life took another pleasant turn for Nirmal. SUTRA asked her to attend a widows’ meet in Rajasthan in 2005. The aim of the meet was to march to the Chief Minister’s house and ask for the rights of single women.
It was an eye-opening event for Nirmal, who had never even travelled out of Himachal. Dressed in beige sari, she was surprised to see other women from different states wearing colorful clothes and jewellery. Standing amid women who had similar stories, Nirmal realised the power of binding communities, and the importance of women being confident and unapologetic for the first time.
“No matter which part of the country they belonged to, single women faced biases from society. Why are widowers (male widows) allowed to remarry and move on with their lives, while we are expected to commit sati or live in isolation? So many questions were raised that I otherwise would have never known had it not been for SUTRA,” says Nirmal.
So upon returning from this march, she called for a similar meet and greet session of all the widows in Mandi district. She collaborated with various NGOs to spread the word.
Close to 120 widows from different districts like Lahaul and Spiti turned up, despite the rumour that Nirmal was out there to traffic the women. They met at SUTRA’s premises and as a mark of silent protest, put on bindis and sindoor.
With a simple gesture, these women, who had not stepped foot outside since their husband’s death, were now undoing years of patriarchy. It was historic in every sense.
What followed was monthly meetings of women and awareness workshops.
“We discussed a number of things at these workshops. For instance, Husbands who are missing can be declared dead after seven years provided a missing person’s FIR is filed. We taught the women how to file FIRs, formed self-help groups to start small businesses, told them how to put their point forward in panchayat meetings and so on,” says Nirmal.
She made a WhatsApp group to post job vacancies, and every year since 2005, more than 150 women are able to get jobs, she says.
Next, the organisation also replaced the term vidhwa (widow) with ekal mahila (single women) in all its rallies, workshops and awareness sessions with the villages. This pushed the villages to change the way they saw widows.
Nirmal and her team drafted a 25-point plan of demands for land, income, jobs, seats in election, pensions, and more.
In 2008, close to 3,500 women marched on foot from Dhammi to the Chief Minister’s house in Shimla to propose the aforementioned plan. Rains, hailstorms and hours worth of waiting outside his residence were not enough to break their determination.
They were finally allowed inside the premises to speak with former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal, and three of their demands – health insurance, ration cards and social security – were implemented statewide.
“We had single women aged between 19 and 90 who were asking for basic rights and dignity. The pension was increased from Rs 200 to 300 for widows, single women got their own ration cards, and health checks up to Rs 5,00,000 were to be for free for single women. This episode established our presence and credibility across the state. Finally, someone was listening to us,” says Nirmal.
Under the Mother Teresa Asahaya Matri Sambal Yojana, the financial assistance for the education of children of destitute and single women was increased from Rs 500 to Rs 6,000.
Sarita Devi from Kangra district is one such beneficiary. She divorced her husband 15 years ago due to a domestic issue. She was ostracised from her community for not being a “good wife”. That’s when ENSS came to her rescue.
“I had no education to apply for a job and my ex-husband refused to send me any alimony for my two daughters. The organisation helped me get back on my feet by giving me a job and scheme benefits. Today, both my daughters are in college and their entire education is funded through the education scheme. I also stood for panchayat elections this year and won,” Sarita tells The Better India.
Additionally, thanks to Nirma’s efforts, the rule according to which only women with less than Rs 7,000 annual income can avail government schemes, was altered. Today, women who earn up to Rs 35,000 are eligible, she says.
For Nirmal, such policy level changes created a larger impact, as now local government departments and villagers had started paying attention to the ENSS. Some of the members even stood for panchayat elections and won.
However, the victories, irrespective of how small or huge they are, come at a cost. Even today, both Nirmal and her organisation face backlash for questioning traditions.
But Nirmal believes that if she could stand up to her relatives at her brother’s wedding when she was 30, there is nothing in this world that can dampen her spirits at 56.
Her next goal is to give land rights to single women.
You can reach her here.