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The silent struggles of single mothers

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SHILLONG, May 12: A silent struggle often goes unnoticed – the plight of single mothers battling against socio-economic odds to provide for their families. With the world celebrating Mother’s Day on Sunday, it is crucial to shed light on the realities faced by these resilient women, realities that politicians often overlook when crafting manifestos or addressing large campaigns.
Martha Kharbuli, a mother to three children, all below 12 years of age, is now pregnant with her fourth. Kharbuli’s struggles do not end there; her third son suffers from autism. She sells vegetables in Laitumkhrah market to make a living, travelling from Nongkrem every morning and leaving her kids with their elder sister, who had to drop out of school to care for her younger siblings.
According to the ‘Exploratory Study on the Socio-Economic Status and Problems of Single Mothers in Meghalaya’ conducted by the Meghalaya State Commission for Women in 2022, there are 3,078 single mothers in seven of the 12 surveyed districts.
Shockingly, 46.2% of them are illiterate, while 28.4% have only primary education, highlighting educational disparities perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hardship. Kharbuli herself only studied until Class VII, after which she had to drop out to care for her siblings. She had her first child when she was just 15.
She earns about Rs 400 per day and struggles to make ends meet. She said, “I initially did not know what autism was. The father of the kid left when he found out. But he is my kid; how can I abandon him? I am a mother after all.”
A Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) study titled ‘A Report on Teenage Pregnancy with a Special Focus on Familial, Legal, and Socio-cultural Context in Meghalaya’ found that the mean age of pregnancy in the state is 16 years.
In 52% of the cases, pregnancy occurred during the first sexual experience. Most of these women continued with the pregnancy because they wanted to take responsibility for their actions, and abortion was against their religious beliefs.
According to the 2021 MLCU report, adolescence lacks the cognitive and emotional maturity necessary to make wise and healthy decisions, let alone understand their sexuality, making them unprepared to cope with the consequences of sexual activity.
Christina Mawlong has a similar story. She sells Kwai and cigarettes in a small shop in Khyndai Lad and is a single mother to two daughters. Mawlong travels from Mawphlang to the city daily. She used to sell second-hand clothes, but after her husband ran away with her money to buy alcohol, she had to start afresh for the sake of her kids. Her younger one goes to college, while her elder daughter stays at home and takes care of the household chores. Mawlong explained why she did not report the incident, saying, “I did not have any certificate to prove I was married to him. Who would I go and report to? Moreover, he stayed with me; he is the father of my children. How can I put him behind bars?”
“I will get back on my feet and make sure my kids do not suffer the same fate as mine,” an optimistic Mawlong added.
Her case is not isolated; many of these mothers are forced to seek employment, often in Shillong, exposing their children to increased risks, including sexual assaults and other dangers lurking in urban environments.
The absence of a chairperson of the Women’s Commission for well over a year underscores the neglect faced by women in positions of authority, leaving crucial decisions unaddressed and exacerbating the challenges faced by single mothers across the state.
Polygyny
The prevalence of polygyny in Meghalaya stands at 6.1%, significantly higher than the national average of 1.4%, according to the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5). This trend, compounded by factors such as desertion, abandonment, and separation, disproportionately affects women in rural areas, where more families are headed by women.
Despite being part of one of the world’s last few matrilineal societies, where women have inheritance rights and dominate public spaces, the ground reality for many single mothers paints a different picture. The intergenerational cycle of single parenthood, as revealed by several researchers, perpetuates the challenges faced by these families, with children raised by single parents more likely to become single parents themselves.
Teenage pregnancy,
child marriage blues
Meghalaya struggles with a teenage pregnancy rate of 7.9%, surpassing the national average, and a child marriage prevalence of 16.3%, exacerbating the socio-economic challenges faced by single mothers. Malnutrition and child marriage, intertwined with poverty and gender discrimination, have a long-term impact on health, education, and employment, further perpetuating the cycle of hardship.
The struggles faced by women reveal the profound socio-economic challenges inhibiting their progress. The prevalence of child marriage is also higher in the state, reaching up to 16.3 per cent.
The cases reported are not isolated cases in Meghalaya, a state that is witnessing rapid population growth and where cases like Mawlong’s and Kharbuli’s abound.
On an important day that celebrates motherhood, the mothers who start early in the state and undergo a plethora of health, social and economic challenges, require all the attention of the state government, the healthcare professionals and all stakeholders, as theirs is a struggle, that is often overlooked.

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