Established by Nirmal Chandel in 2005, a few years after she was widowed, Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghathan (The Association of Empowered Single Women) started as a group of 120 women advocating for the social and economic rights of single, widowed, deserted, and divorced women in Northern India. Due to the stigma and insufficient legal protection for widows, older single women and those awaiting divorces, it is difficult for women in these situations to retain financial agency and fight discrimination. Over the past 15 years, ENSS has expanded across 14 Indian states. ENSS charges a membership fee of Rs. 10 for a year or Rs. 101 for life (less than US$2). As of 2019, they had 135,000 members. They raise funds through membership dues and online crowdfunding. ENSS’ work is supported by volunteers from Social Uplift Through Rural Action (SUTRA), an Indian NGO.
Theory of Change
Grassroots empowerment and mutual support help marginalized women stand up to discrimination and lead to political and cultural changes in their local communities and governments.
ENSS hosts meetings and workshops with single women in partnership with other NGOs and grassroots workers to discuss the threats to human dignity, property, livelihood, education, and political participation faced by single women. First, they seek to redress any issues in their local community. Next, they lobby state governments to fill gaps in protection of women and provide stronger financial and social support to single women. For example, they help widows break sexist norms, support women to fight for their stolen land, and help women access government financial aid programs, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, pension, poverty cards, ration cards, health cards, and education. ENSS runs campaigning workshops to encourage women to stand for local elections. They also provide micro-credit schemes to help women start their own businesses and buy livestock for self-sustainability. Moreover, ENSS runs a newsletter, Ekal Nari Ki Awaz (The Single Woman’s Voice) to share success stories from neighborhoods, highlight leadership by local women in the group, publicize ENSS activities, and explain to women how to approach ENSS for help.
In 2008, 3,000 women participated in a 45 km march to demand inclusion of single women on policies among Himachal’s political leadership. As a result of their lobbying and demonstrations, more than 400,000 women received benefits, social security, pension, health insurance, and ration cards. They also successfully pressured the Himachal and Rajasthan states to implement the governmental financial aid programs for widows and women living in poverty. ENSS has supported many of their members to run for local district elections - and some have won. In 2010, ENSS’s Himachal Pradesh chapter won the Ashoka’s Change Makers Award for advocating and enabling all 35 single women in the Tikri village of Baijanth to access government programs. In 2011, ENSS received Rs. 2.2 million (US$160,000) from the Ashoka Foundation for their work on counseling and mediating with in-laws and providing microfinance grants for women.