Single Mothers, the Magically Powered Unicorns of their Kids!

Lone/ Single mothers possess super magical powers to raise their kids, especially in India’s context, and that is why I call them a Unicorn. The write up is my sincere effort to highlight the current grim state of Lone Mothers.

Lone mothers primarily include single, divorced, separated, or widowed women, residing with their children, or embed within an extended family setup. Numerous reasons drive single mothers to build their living arrangements — including male migration, partner violence, abandonment, the quest for independence, among various others. In countries like India, social laws make it worst for women to re-marry or enter a new partner union. At the same time, unmarried mothers may even experience severe social isolation, judgment, and disgrace.

Ever growing globalization and urbanization has propelled the count of migrant labor worldwide. With gradually declining agricultural activities, most men are shifting to urban regions in search of better employment opportunities, leaving their women counterparts as single mothers. Due to a lack of proper education, most of these single parent women have limited scope of getting the right jobs and, at times, even become the victims of exploitation. Moreover, being from the underprivileged strata of Indian society, these lone mothers would prefer to depend on their husbands or other relatives in extended households for support instead of living alone and raising their kids.

“Single mother of two for over eight years, Rajani Mittal, from Delhi in India, shared her challenges as a lone mother. Rajani’s husband separated and settled with another woman, leaving her alone with twin kids, and without any financial respite. While recalling those harsh times, Rajani stated, “My life came to a standstill, as everything looked so complicated. Besides, my family members did not offer any support, while the social community left me in pain instead of extending any caring hand. However, I somehow regained myself as I had to tackle and manage everything on my own to ensure everything that my children deserve.” Rajani stopped caring about society and started ignoring the unsolicited advice from people around her. With her confidence, willpower, and ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude, Rajani sailed through her tough times. Presently, her only focus is to assure the best education and lifestyle for her twins and herself.

What Statistics Suggest

According to Progress of the World’s Women 2019–2020 report by United Nations (UN) Women, there are over 100 million (Based on a count from 89 countries worldwide) single mothers living alone. Besides, lone mothers, on a global scale, comprise the overwhelming majority of single parent households across the globe. The report estimates that women head more than eight in every ten lone parent households worldwide. These numbers indicate that women have to standby for the proper upbringing of their children and ensure the family’s economic survival.

Moreover, a lower global average of 15.7% of lone father households across all nations interprets that mothers are children’s most exceptional caregivers. The skimpy percentage also reflects that men are more likely to re-marry and settle in a new home, leaving their offspring with their mothers alone or might with other female family members.

The report further reveals that an estimated 4.5% of all Indian households are lead by single mothers, translating a massive 13 million count of lone mothers staying alone with their children. Another 32 million single mothers from across the nation live in extended families. (Based on the 2017 estimates of India’s population, these finally derived estimates (in millions) are the combination of data on household size and family arrangements in India, from the 2009–2010 employment survey, with UN’s 2017 World Population Prospect report.)

Lone mothers are a prominent part of a single parent family in India and globally. Most often, these single mothers are unable to make earnings or access family’s wealth/ assets and have to live at the sympathy of the purse holder or breadwinner of the family or kinship networks for childcare and other support.

Present Structure of Families Worldwide and in India

Families are the building blocks of social communities, without which societies and nations could be at a halt. A family plays a pivotal role in assuring a sense of identity and belonging with love and affection for every family member. Besides, families allow people to share resources, like housing and income, taking care of frail and sick while reproduce and nurture the next generation.

Modern families do not have a single/ standard form, nor had they ever in the past. With fast altering global landscape, families are also transforming, and so is the role of women living in them.

The figure below states that couples living with their children (of any age), including an adult child, are the most prevalent family form, comprising about 38.4% of households worldwide. However, the count drops to 33% for couples staying with at least one child age below 18. Other prominent global household classifications include extended families (at 26.6%), couples living without children (at 12.9%), single person families (at 12.5%), and lone parent households (one parent living with at least one child of any age) account for 7.5% of which majority (over 84%) headed by lone mothers.

As per the additional data in the 2019–2020 UN Women report, Indian couples living with their children (of any age) continue to dominate the tally at 46.7%, followed by extended family types accounting for 31% during the data collection period. Single person households registered 7.7% from across the nation while lone parents living arrangements recorded 5.4%, with the majority of the families managed and led by single mothers.

Growing diversity across the global regions majorly influences people’s living arrangements!

Source: UN-Women (Progress of the World’s Women 2019–20)

Lone Mothers — Age has its Challenges Too

The global age wise composition of lone mothers includes mother/ child households (living with one or more children under the age of 18) and accounted for 35.5% of women aged 35 to 59 while others recorded 17.5% aged between 25 and 34. Surprisingly, 3.4% of lone mothers, heading individual parent households, aged below 25, a relatively small proportion still comprising nearly 3.8 million extremely vulnerable young women.

Moreover, about 127,000 of these young single mothers are below 18 years of age, living alone with their children. These adolescent mothers face social complexities, withdrawal, and inequalities, especially in developing nations, like India.

Source: UN-Women (Progress of the World’s Women 2019–20)

Children Living with Lone Mothers

A significant count of children worldwide aged 0 to 14 years and adolescents between 15 and 17 years, comprising 7.1% and 9.5%, respectively, staying in single parent setup, the majority of which includes lone mothers. Based on the context and prevailing family system, especially in developing economies like India, living with single mothers likely to be more challenging. On the contrary, it may also be an assurance of children’s safety when a mother and her kid separate from an abusive or violent household.

Lone Mothers in Extended Families

Almost half (or nearly 50%) of the lone mothers across all global nations reside within extended household arrangements. Living together and pooling resources allows occupants to save more on housing budgets while ensuring protection against any social or economic consequences. The other core reason for lone mothers to opt for an extended living is to provide loving care for their kids. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, and siblings, hold an essential spot in extending childcare and support to single mothers. These two primary aspects — resources and care — signify the extended residential structure in developing countries (like India’s) contexts and with considerable variations across global regions.

Count and proportion of lone mothers staying within the extended household patterns depend on numerous factors, including household income, availability of affordable housing and state support to build own home, the level of social acceptance for independently living lone mothers and the prominence of extended family setups as a household type in every context. Therefore, the proportion of lone mothers, co-living within extended family forms varies across regions.

Economic Survival is Still a Concern for Lone Mothers

The recent UN Women study shows, the poverty rate of Indian households, headed by lone mothers (with children aged six years or younger), stands at 38%, against 22.6% of dual parent family setups across the nation. This bleak reading deteriorates all cheerful remarks about the growing count of lone mothers with transformations in society and improvements in women’s education rate. Indeed, lone mothers’ poverty rates would likely be even much higher if not for shared family living arrangements.

These prominent differences in lone mother poverty rate may partly be due to discrimination in women’s limited access to resources, like maternal employment rates, parental leave schemes, family allowance initiatives, and specified marital property regimes. Having adequate income sources or assets is critical for lone mothers in securing a sufficient standard of living, especially during their old age, when they might have to live alone.

Lone mother households, with zero to lower income protection from a second earner, exposed to higher risks of poverty in comparison to two parent families.

Further, based on the data facts, just 29.1% of women (aged between 25 and 54) comprise the labor force in India, compared to a massive 97.8% for men in the same age range. Single mothers, in high income and low/ medium income nations, face the adverse impacts of gender pay inequalities and motherhood wage penalties (the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without any dependent children).

This widespread discrimination in labor markets and women’s uneven responsibility for performing unpaid domestic tasks, along with payless family and childcare, poses various financial concerns, particularly for lone mothers. They cannot rely on pooling their income resources with their partners.

Marriage and motherhood majorly affect women’s labor force participation and earning caliber in India.

“At a remote location in Bihar, India, a widow and single mother of three, Bina watched her husband slaughtered mercilessly by local goons. Later, some Militant group thrashed her as a hostage for about six months before Bihar police rescued her to a women protection cell near the capital city, Patna. Fortunately, she was able to reunite with her children. Despite her tough times, tragedy, and trauma, Bina learned tailoring works from a skill development institution supported by a local social service provider and stood economically independent. Presently, she stays in a rented small home, but her situation remains wobbly, as she has no savings to ensure the desired upbringing for her kids and has no access to social protection.”

Lone Mother Families and Child Support Mechanism

In most countries, including India, fathers who are not living with their children, are legally obliged to provide financial contributions for the upkeep of their child. This support methodology, usually done through private transfers, referred to as child support or child maintenance.

At times, however, assuring such money linked child support measures from the non-custodial father can be tricky. Therefore, countries, including India, are aggressively attempting to setup stringent child support enforcement, like salary deductions, driving license cancellation, and even confinement or custody. These measures are critical for making single parents realize their obligations towards the child even after separation or divorce. These administrative rulings are also an effort to reduce the burden on state or social expenditure.

Public support is another critical measure to address the resource or financial assistance to single mother families. The issue, however, is that such civil provisions allow fathers to ignore their family responsibilities. Therefore, public support for lone mother families should not be contingent on paternal transfers or payments under the child support system.

What’s Trending — Single Women Adopting Children to be Mother

In the recent past, the count of single Indian women seeking to adopt children along with those of successful adoptions has witnessed an encouraging gain. The primary motivation to initiate this bold action is the underlying theme of the altering thought processes of modern women. Today, the women do not see any connection between being a single mother and getting married to be a mother.

A recent Right to Information (RTI) reply from the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the regulator and nerve center of adoptions in India, revealed surprising numbers of single women aspiring to adopt children. Statistics from CARA showed that during 2018–2019 alone, 589 single women applicants were seeking for child adoption, augmenting 19% from 495 applications during 2017–2018. Besides, until December 2019, there were over 510 single women already applied for adopting a child, and the count anticipated to expand by the end of the financial year (FY) 2019–2020.

Indian adoption rules also allow single men to adopt a child except adopting daughters. According to the same RTI reply, child adoption applications from single Indian men who applied swelled to more than double from only 21 in 2015–2016 to 45 in 2018–2019. Until December 2019, the application count was at 71 for the FY 2019–2020.

Source: RTI Reply from CARA

“Mrinalini Mahajan, a 44 year Delhi resident, adopted her child in 2008, after getting inspired by Bollywood star and former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen, who adopted her first daughter in 2000 when she was just 24 and second in 2010. Recalling her past, Mrinalini stated, “I adopted when I was 27. I clearly remember that I was watching Sushmita Sen’s interview, mentioning about her adopted daughter. That was the moment I said to myself, ‘what a nice way to build a family.’” Adding further, she stated, “For me, marriage and adoption were altogether two very different directions. I was dating when I adopted, with no plans to marry and settle. I even continued dating even after adopting the child. Therefore, in purely my view, I strongly recommend society leaders to de-link the concept of marrying with that of having children.”

Concluding Note

It is quite nerve racking to fathom the magnitude of challenges that lone mothers (widows, divorcees, separated, or a single parent by choice) face every day across the global regions, including India. The inequality, discrimination, and disadvantage that single mothers face from their partners and in their family relations are neither natural nor inevitable. Throughout their lifetimes, around one in three single mothers most likely to experience isolation, stress, physical abuse, and discrimination either by an intimate partner or by society. In countries like India, it is tough for lone mothers to inherit property, while their voices stifled and their agency battered. These rather insensitive circumstances often push single mothers to seek help from mental health professionals.

With a phenomenally rising count of households headed by lone mothers, there is an urgent need to formulate inclusive policies to aid their everyday requirements. While framing relevant policies, policymakers/ activists in India and worldwide must take close note of challenges, including financial aid, insecurity, safety, social disgrace, balanced work/ home life, and others. The primary focus should be on transforming families into a home for equality and justice with economic security and physical safety for single mores and women community as a whole.

As a seasoned Social Researcher, Moumita is actively engaged in social development projects and writing on diverse topics related to social issues.

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