A Family of One’s Own: Single Women Demanding Land Rights for Economic Security

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A Family of One’s Own: Single Women Demanding Land Rights for Economic Security

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Single women in Himachal Pradesh, India are demanding thirty year lease rights to land from the state. The social movement of single women (Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan) designed a plan to create a new family formation, the "naya sasural" (new marital family): an older single woman joins with a younger single woman and her children to create an economically viable, mutually supportive family unit.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Rural single women have few economic opportunities, lack adequate child care, have difficulty accessing property rights, and often fight for a decade or more to receive a divorce. Many also lack a place to live with dignity, as they face harassment from neighbors and family members. With spiraling costs of food, education and health care, poor single women face tremendous financial stress. Given high inflation rates for basic food items, combined with a stagnant local wage, reliance upon the market for ensuring food security is a risky strategy for economic survival. Many single women working in insecure government jobs (in primary schools or childcare centers) earn only 500-800 rupees per month; single women working as domestic workers in neighbors’ homes only earn 200-300 hundred rupees for 45-60 hours of work per month. Poor, landless single women lack the food security that farming can provide.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

As landless single women crafted the demand for rights to land, they re-envisioned the household itself. Life as a single woman farmer is literally back-breaking, and the work of farming and running a household is more than one adult can bear (farming crops, tending to a cow or buffalo, gathering fodder and fuelwood, hauling water, cooking over a wood burning stove, tending to children, washing clothing, cleaning the house, and also finding a way to earn enough money through informal work to pay for clothing, educational expenses and other necessities not produced on the farm). ENSS’s new family, in which an older single woman joins with a younger single woman to create a joint household is an alternative to the normative marital household, but one that still relies upon interdependence through a division of labor. The plan to enable women who are not kin to network and forge relationships of kinship through the metaphor of the sasural (marital family), entails a radical rethinking of kinship, gender and rights in land. A new marital family offers women the ability to craft lives as women-centered families working together to create an economically viable small farming household. By demanding long term lease rights from the government, the land remains a collective resource for generations of single women which will be passed on to other landless and economically vulnerable single women. The plan for these new households provides economic security by pairing subsistence and market based survival strategies. Because the Himachal Government has not responded to the demand for long-term lease rights to land, ENSS has forwarded the idea of creating a demonstration project of five naya sasurals (comprised of 10 single women and their children) to demonstrate that these new family forms create economic independence and the basis for lives of dignity and respect.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Single women are widowed, divorced, abandoned, fleeing domestic violence, or never-married due to choice or circumstance. As of 2010 in Himachal Pradesh, there are 186,460 widows; 11,338 deserted women; 4,999 divorced women; and 23,913 unmarried women. The majority of single women in the state reside in rural areas. Of the total number of single women, approximately 10-15% (estimates provided by single women representatives working at the village and block level) lack a secure place to live and a means of secure income or subsistence. The plan for the naya sasural would enable these most vulnerable single women to have economic and food security and raise their children to forge a better life. This woman-centered model of a household has numerous successful precedents in practice. In-depth interviews with forty-six rural, Himachali single women in 2005, document households in which younger and older single women of a family joined together to create a woman-centered household combining income generation, farming, and reproductive work to craft a life of economic security (Berry 2008). One woman generally takes care of much of the household work as well as some of the lighter farming tasks, leaving time for the other woman to do the heavy farming labor and engage in income-generating activities. The plan to elevate this practice to the status of policy, to enable women who are not kin to network and forge relationships of kinship through the metaphor of the sasural (marital family), broadens this locally successful model to the most marginalized single women.
About You
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



, CA, Monterey County

Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?

Organization Name


Organization Phone

+91 1792 283725 or +91 1792 283772

Organization Address

SUTRA: Jagjit Nagar 173225 HP

Organization Country

, HP

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, HP

Do you have a patent for this idea?


Single women organized across the state, created a platform of demands, lobbied politicians, and when demands weren't met, organized a three day march to the state capital. All primary demands, with the exception of the demand for land, were met. Since the march in 2008, ENSS has ensured that promises made by the Chief Minister became official policy and were implemented. Recently ENSS sponsored a people’s tribunal in which they foregrounded issues of domestic violence and highlighted single women’s economic vulnerability. They used these tribunals to raise public awareness through the media and to lobby government to respond to single women’s demands.
Despite numerous successes, lobbying alone has not proved sufficient to convince the government to grant long term lease rights to new family units of single women. The next step is to create a demonstration project to convince skeptical policy makers that these units are economically and socially viable.


ENSS achieved many of its demands: income criterion for receiving social security pension raised from Rs 15,000/- per annum to Rs 24,000; free medicines and check-ups assured through public health care institutions; education grants for children of single women under Mother Teressa scheme doubled; after two years of residence in the maternal home, single women may obtain ration cards in their own names.
Results from the demonstration project:
Year One: Purchase 10 acres of land for five new households, construct basic homes, purchase cow or buffalo through micro-credit scheme; begin farming cycle (winter wheat, summer rice/corn; pulses, fruits and vegetables); pair with income generation.
Years Two and Three: Record results of first years' harvests; track economic data for households showing reliance on market and non-market economic survival strategies and patterns of household consumption; promote demonstration projects with policy makers. Achieve goal of 30 year lease rights to land.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


If so, how?

ENSS has successfully established links with the senior State Bureaucracy wherein policy matters were discussed and appropriate directions by the Chief Secretary were issued to concerned departments to amend their programs/policies. Since the state government has so far refused to discuss land rights, ENSS will show through the land demonstration project that the government will benefit from leasing land to vulnerable single women because they will be responsible citizens of the state, be economically independent, and ensure that the next generation of children has a head start on being independent as well.

The implementation of the naya sasural would shape public policy by granting lease rights to state-owned land to some of the most vulnerable members of the population. This policy change will thereby shape access to resources for generations of single women to come.

One of the most significant effects of ENSS so far is that policy makers are now analyzing single women as a distinct group of women with unique needs.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for more than 5 years

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with businesses?

Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation.

Partnerships with government and NGO partners enable the development of a two-fold and complimentary process: the creation of new policy by working with those in positions of power at the state level; and the ability to implement that policy through a dense network of social actors at the grassroots level. These grassroots activists, affiliated with partner NGOs across the state, are in the position to identify qualified single women and ensure an efficient and transparent process for implementation of the plan. The business plan for these households relies upon an integrated economic model that utilizes government programs for micro-credit, rural employment guarantee schemes (NAREGA’s public works program), and programs and credits for below poverty line families.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

Grants: 2,000,000 rupees - purchase of two acres of land per household for a total of 10 acres of land for a demonstration collective of five single women households (each household will be comprised of 2 single women and their children). An analysis of the land redistribution act in Himachal Pradesh shows that there are thousands of acres held by large landowners which are in excess of the land ceiling limits of the 1972 Tenancy Land Reforms Act. Through policy changes, the HP government will claim this agricultural land as a collective pool to be offered on long term leases to landless single women farmers. ENSS, with the support of SUTRA and partner NGOs across the state, will work with the government to oversee the equitable implementation of the long term lease rights and support the formation of these new family formations. This plan for creating new families of single women and children is based on successful models of such farming households of landed single women across the state. The social movement of single women plans to extend this model to landless single women who are economically vulnerable.

Government Programs: 300,000 rupees - Micro-credit loans for cow or buffalo = 20,000-25,000 rupees per household for a total of 100,000 to 125,000 rupees. Grant for House Construction (through Indira Awaas Yojana) = 38,000 rupees per household for a total of 190,000 rupees. The ultimate goal is to have the government see the success of the demonstration plan and allocate state-held land for 30 year leases to new single women households.

ENSS HP: 25,000 rupees - ENSS will raise 5,000 rupees per household for basic household necessities.

The business plan for the new households is based on the tried and true economic survival strategy of poor agricultural households in the region. Farming families combine multiple survival strategies to meet the economic needs. By growing grains, pulses, vegetables, fruit and some spices for the household, basic food security is secured. Each new family unit would farm two acres of land, providing food security for the household, supplemented by production of agricultural products to be sold in the market to pay for clothing, oils, spices and other essentials.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

ENSS launched a pad yatra (protest march), following in the Gandhian tradition of non-violent direct action for social change in April of 2008. Over 2600 single women marched for three days to Shimla, the state capital of HP, to present their demands to the Chief Minister of the state (see http://afamilyofonesown.blogspot.com/ for the embedded video documentary) This protest was carried out after only two and a half years of organizing work in the state, revealing the speed with which divorced, abandoned, never-married women, widows, and wives fleeing domestic violence embraced a new identity as single women and became dues-paying members of an organization that centered their particular struggles as women living outside the institution of marriage. The three–day pad yatra to the state capital culminated in Chief Minister Dhumal- political leader of the state- in which he assured the single women that their needs would be taken into consideration. He promised that the state would immediately attend to some of their core demands: to issue ration cards in single women’s names; to help make Himachal among the first states to give tribal women inheritance rights in land; to provide free health care for impoverished single women; to attend to the backlog of social security pension cases; and to allot a pension to impoverished single women who are abandoned by their children. Yet Chief Minister Dhumal was conspicuously silent on the demand for granting long term leases of land to single women farmers. ENSS began to envision a demonstration project to show that the naya sasural would work, and the government should lease farming land to vulnerable single women.

Tell us about the social innovator—the person—behind this idea.

The idea was part of a collective dialogue and planning session of single women leaders from across the state. Nirmala Devi, Radha Devi, and Deepa Devi, among many others, created this plan. Many of the leaders of ENSS are single women who are survivors of domestic violence, often fleeing life-threatening situations, only to find themselves stigmatized and marginalized when returning to their natal home. Their courage and determination to survive against tremendous odds has fueled their passion as leaders of ENSS.

Radha Devi is typical of many of these leaders of this movement, whereby their own experiences of oppression have fueled their passion for justice. After surviving extreme levels of domestic violence, she left with her son to return to her mother’s home. There her brothers lovingly accepted her into their small mud-brick home, despite the lack of room. With only a tiny plot of land for the entire family, there is no room to grow crops or build additional structures to support Radha and her son. Despite the loving reception by her brothers and mother, Radha was subjected to malicious gossip in the village, where neighbors blamed her for being a bad woman who left her husband; in addition she was harassed by her husband for several years after leaving. She was one of the initial leaders of ENSS in Himachal, and this movement enabled her to draw upon her strength as a survivor to help other single women who are suffering from physical violence, social marginalization and economic insecurity.

Subhash Mendhapurkar, founder and director of SUTRA, has provided critical support for the movement. In particular, his long-term relationships with state leaders have enabled him to work with other NGOs and members of civil society to shape policy at the state (and national) level in pursuit of gender justice. By drawing upon his decades of experience as a change agent, Subhash has supported the development of ENSS and enabled the movement to achieve a significant impact after only five years of organization.

Subhash Mendharpurkar grew up in the slums of Pune in an asset-less family. He later studied at university where he obtained a postgraduate certificate in Community Development. After working as a free-lance journalist and lecturer in undergraduate colleges, he founded SUTRA with the support of other NGOs in 1977. Since then SUTRA has been at the forefront of projects and policy development for empowering women and girls across the state.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Email from Changemakers

If through another source, please provide the information.

Website and one of SUTRA’s friends was declared as Change Maker in the year 2009-10 - Mr Harish Sadani – Mumbai.

Which (if any) of the following strategies apply to your organization or company (check as many as apply)

Formalizing and documenting property rights (i.e. titling, leasing or certification), Legal education and awareness.

Please explain how your work furthers one or many of the above strategies (if you selected “other”, please explain your strategy)

The demonstration project will show the state government of HP India that leasing land to vulnerable single women will benefit the state- making these women and their children economically independent as well as providing them with a life of dignity and respect.