Nirmal Chandel transforming lives of single women
Women throughout the globe have been suppressed for ages. With time the conditions of women have changed but this fact is only partially true for countries like India. In India women are still considered below men despite challenging them in almost every field, women are still taken down. Practices like honor killing, dowry, genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, and child marriages are still a symbol of the ill condition of women in the nation.
And such is the situation of widows in India. They are outcastes that bring misfortune to their own family who is deemed unpure and unauspicious to be even seen. The outcasting of widows is common practice in the country and Nirmal Chandel is yet another survivor of the ill practice. This is her story.
A spearhead from Himachal Pradesh, Nirmal Chandel was widowed at the young age of 23.
Since her husband died in 1989, she was confined to an isolated room with a dim light. She wasn’t allowed to wear colorful clothes or eat with the family or even attend any joyous functions. In essence, widows in India live a life that doesn’t even remotely resemble a normal life.
Nirmal broke out of this subjugation when she joined an NGO named SUTRA (Social Upliftment through Rural Action). The NGO hired her as an accountant on a monthly salary of Rs. 350. Though being only a metric pass, she expected a cleric position yet to her surprise she was hired at a much better position. In the initial months, she didn’t know anything but her determination to learn made her a master accountant within years.
During this time, even her own family was against her. She was offered a monthly allowance of RS. 500 by her family to quit the job and stay at home. But Nirmal knew that in exchange for the allowance she had to give up her freedom once again and so she rejected it. Despite society’s outrage and out shaming from her own- Nirmal built her life and even inspired several others to reclaim their rights.
Working with SUTRA made her realize that this battle of equality isn’t her own, but thousands of others who are going through the same plight. In 2005, her life took another turn when SUTRA invited her to a widows’ meet in Rajasthan. The aim of the meet was to demand equal rights for the single women from the CM. The meet opened her eyes and she realized that there is so much more to the world that she never realized before.
“No matter which part of the country they belonged to, single women faced biases from society. Why are widowers 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,” said Nirmal Chandel in an interview with The Better India.
When she returned, she called for a similar meet in her locality and organized a group of widows demanding their rights. They portrayed a rather rare depiction of the protest by wearing ‘Sindoors’ (vermillion) that reflects that their lives didn’t stop with the death of their husbands. It wasn’t just one protest that led to their recognition, in fact, it was the series of similar meets that ignited change in the society.
A Strive For Change
In the same year, she collaborated with several NGOs and created the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) in Himachal with 120 single women. She formed a WhatsApp group through which she would circulate job vacancies among the group and helped almost three thousand women secure their income. The organization also changed the word ‘vidhwa’ which means widow to ‘Ekal Mahila’ which means single woman.
In 2008, along with 3500 other women, Chandel marched towards the CM house in Shimla and protested outside the premises. They walked 45 km over three days with their luggage on their head yet no rain, thunderstorm or hunger could break their spirit and they consistently sat outside the door to silently protest for their rights. It is this sheer determination that they were finally invited inside to talk. The formal CM of Shimla, Prem Kumar Dhumal, agreed to their three demands including ration cards, social security, and health insurance.
Along with this, under the Mother Teresa Asahaya Matri Sambal Yojana, the financial assistance for the education of children of single women was increased from Rs 500 to Rs 6,000. This was a major milestone achieved by the ENSS. The woman abandoned by their own families found refuge within the organization. Today they house more than 3,538 widows, divorcees, and deserted women.
Today 56-year-old Nirmal Chandel walks the road head high and empowers thousands of women to break free of the shackles of subjugations and recuperate their rights. Nirmal is an inspiration and represents solidarity in its true form.