Will the Stigma Against Single Mothers in India Ever End?

Single mothers in India still have a long way to go in terms of social acceptance, writes Sreemoyee Kundu.

3 min read
Will the Stigma Against Single Mothers in India Ever End?

We lived in our maternal grandparent’s home in Kolkata, where my mother returned as a young widow accompanied by a toddler. Throughout my childhood, I lied about my father’s identity.

I wanted to pre-empt consistent questions about who he was and what he did, an invasive inquisitiveness that I saw my mother battling as well. We were treated as social outcasts, like when we were not invited to my cousin’s haldi ceremonies or a child’s naam karn.

A lot has changed in India for single mothers over the past couple of years. Many unmarried women are now adopting, buying sperm from donors, and having children out of wedlock. Similarly, the number of divorced women with kids is also increasing.


While the Delhi High Court order is a positive step towards gender-neutral parenting laws, in a patriarchal country, can a woman escape social pressure? Will her child not be discriminated against during school admissions, or be traumatised at birthday parties and hobby classes where parenthood equals couple-hood?

Film-maker Anindita Sarbadhicari, an unwed single mother via in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and sperm donation, admits it is about battling deep-seated misogyny.

I know of a woman who, armed with this judgment, went to the regional passport office in Kolkata saying ‘I don’t want my father’s name since he abandoned my mother’. She was was threatened by the local officer who said,“till I am there in this seat, this won’t happen.” A woman denying a father’s name is questioning patriarchy.

Many unmarried women are now adopting, buying sperm from donors, and having children out of wedlock. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Many unmarried women are now adopting, buying sperm from donors, and having children out of wedlock. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Malini Parmar, 43, living with 11-year-old daughter Tara and 9-year-old Lila, adopted from Orissa, adds:

Both my girls have passports but I had to run around since adopted children constitute a special category and their case was referred to a central office, with a police verification request sent to Orissa that took ages, though they’d been with me for 4 years. Lots of of divorced women use their husband’s name to make life simpler. On e-forms too, I write NA for the father’s name, before getting a response addressed to Mr NA – the father’s name being a culturally conditioned mindset.

Even men seem to agree that despite progressive legislation, the societal framework is rigid and they too battle stereotypes.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled an unwed mother can be appointed as the sole legal guardian of her child minus the father’s consent. But, implementation is not easy. And while guardianship is mostly associated with men, sometimes after a divorce, even if a dad is involved in co-parenting and paying for the child’s upkeep – the estranged wife maligns his reputation. What about single dads? Some women abandon their kids or if a man adopts? Must he also fill in the mother’s name? The male voice is underrepresented, due to this gender stereotyping. 
Anubhav Poddar, a divorcee with a teenage son.

Where popular culture makes ‘baap ka naam,’ a necessity, actor Ekavali Khanna, single mom of two sons, says:

I didn’t change my name and even now on holidays my sons are asked, ‘beta Papa saath nahin aaye?’ and they say we are not together. As an only daughter, I’ve heard, ‘bhai behen nahin hain?’, so the mental conditioning needs to be challenged.

‘Even adoption agencies eye you suspiciously, so the reverse is also true, though the male psyche is under-represented,’ claims 39-year-old IT professional Somnath Deb, who contemplated adoption.

The idea of a single man adopting is outlandish to the Indian psyche with adoption laws being stricter. According to the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, ‘Any male Hindu of sound mind and is not a minor has the capacity to take a son or a daughter in adoption, ‘provided’ that, if he has a wife living, he won’t adopt except with the consent of his wife unless she has completely and finally renounced the world or has ceased to be a Hindu or is declared by a court of competent jurisdiction to be of unsound mind.

As the single population rises, whether in a Court ruling or as a larger social change – who will win the battle of the sexes?

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