Nirmal Chandel is a resident of Himachal Pradesh, widowed at the young age of 23. Her husband died of a heart attack at 30 years old, just after two years of marriage, and soon her life turned upside down. She was isolated from the rest of the family and shifted to a dimly lit room. However, the room was improper and did not even have a fan.
She was not allowed to eat with the rest of the family, meet other people, wear colorful clothes, or even bindi. She considered ending her depressing life as she could see no hope. Her parents showed their backs to her, and her in-laws already considered her a burden. This changed when one of her friends urged her to join an NGO, SUTRA (Social Upliftment through Rural Action).
She was there trained and hired as an accountant. This shocked Nirmal as she was the only metric pass and thought she would only be given a small assistant role. Nevertheless, Nirmal took on this challenge, learned everything about accountancy, and started working. This newly found independence of hers was resisted by her family, who offered her a monthly allowance in exchange for her giving up the job. But Nirmal had other plans and wanted to help other widows too.
The same year, SUTRA asked her to attend a single women rally convention in Rajasthan. She was not open to the idea as she thought they were only sending her because she was a widow. But soon, she changed her mind and considered it a learning experience as she had never been out of her state.
In her own words, Nirmal couldn’t believe what she saw there. She saw women from other states wearing colorful clothes, bangles, jewelry, and bindi. There she understood the strength of communities and that single women have no reason to feel shame and guilt.
Inspired by the convention, she founded ENSS – EkalNari Shakti Sangathan in her district of Mandi. Then, she started spreading awareness and invited single women to join and attend the meeting. In the first meeting itself, 120 women showed up and wore colorful bindi and sindoor as a sign of quiet protest. They soon started meeting monthly and discussing problems faced by single women and their solutions.
They created a WhatsApp group for the employment of single women which is said to have at least helped 150 women get work every year. They started educating rural women on filing FIR for their missing or deceased husbands and alimony, enrolling in government schemes, and applying for pensions.
She also changed the term Vidwah to EkalNari to show a single woman has a more significant identity than a widow. Nirmal and her team devised a 25-point plan which demanded rights and benefits for single women in government policy and schemes.
In 2008, she led 3,500 women march from Dhammi to Chief Minister’s Residence in Shimla. This was a 30km march. They stood outside his residence for several hours in rain and hailstone. At last, the result came to fruition, and the chief minister accepted three of their 25-point demands.
Ration cards, Health Insurance, and Social security pension were made available for single women. Under this plan, more than 400,000 women benefitted in the state. Nirmal also influenced various schemes which increased financial assistance for single women and education for their children.
Earlier in the state, single women needed to earn less than Rs.6000 annual income to apply for specific schemes, but now it has been increased to Rs.35 000. This helps a larger category of single women to apply for assistance.
Nirmal’s organization ENSS now has more than 16,000 members, and she helps single women nationwide find employment and freedom.