“Ï am now a free woman,” says Nirmal Chandel, pointing towards her bright clothes, bangles and jewellery, which she was forbidden from wearing as a 25-year-old widow.Lalli Dhakar was married at the age of 18 months, spurned by her husband for a second wife as a 12-year-old, a mother at 13 years and widowed by 15, after which she found herself thrown out of her marital home, and turned away by her parents.The two women now hold different leadership positions at the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights, which is a collective of single women comprising, widowed, divorced, separated and never married women with a membership of 1,50,000. As many as 100 women gathered in the national capital last week from villages in Girdih (Jharkhand), Bhilwara (Rajasthan), Sanand (Gujarat), Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh) and Beed (Maharashtra) among others, to exchange their personal stories, share their struggle for their rights and provide inspiration to each other.“In the 1990s I thought how could we involve widows in the women’s rights movement and tried to convince different NGOs and government workers to make a special effort to reach out to widows, which would be the best way to engage with the most number of women. But when that did not happen and we realised that when a government functionary, an NGO worker and a community leader were all widows, they were able to organise themselves and mobilise women to help each other,” says the forum’s founder, Ginny Shrivastava — a Canada-born women’s rights activist who has spent 49 years in India — about the birth of the collective which is now present across 11 States.As per the 2011 Census, there are more than five crore single women, of which more than half are over 60 years old, of which an overwhelming majority is from rural parts of the country. The collective demands that the government involve single women like them to frame policies as their struggles are quite different from those of urban women due to early marriage, lack of education and social stigma. .“I didn’t shy from hard work. I was no less than men. I cut and gathered crops during the harvest season, separated paddy grain from the rest of the crop, stored them in large containers and sold the produce,”says 40-year-old Lila Devi from GiridihWomen like her demand employment, scholarship for educating their children, medical care, skills training and a right on their marital property so that they can avail government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for affordable housing.One key demand is also a pension for all single women below the poverty line and above the age of 40 years, and not just widows, of up to ₹5,000 per month instead of a mere ₹200 per beneficiary.“Their should also be a dedicated budget for our pensions, so that there is no delay in disbursing them and women don’t have to wait for five to seven years,” says Nirmal Chandel, President, National Forum for Single Women’s Rights.