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When you’re married to someone you (hopefully) love, they become the center of your universe. But what happens when they die? For many women the world over, becoming a widow means becoming a burden – and being tainted by stigma.
In 2011, the UN designated June 23 as International Widows’ Day. There may be an eye-roll: why do widows need an international awareness day? Isn’t this just another one to add to the ever-growing list of UN-sanctioned days which sound promising but then don’t particularly amount to much? I’d argue ‘maybe not’ – International Womens’ Day, Day of the Girl and Peace One Day have demonstrated that these designated days can indeed have an impact.
But first let’s go back even further, to 2001, when the UN published “Widowhood: Invisible Women, Secluded or Excluded.” It opens with the disheartening observation that widows “are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last twenty-five years.” With increasingly ageing populations, and womens’ longer life expectancies, it could be imagined that the number of widows will increase; yet 12 years after publication, the stories found in the report are dispiritingly similar to those of widows today. Once their husband dies, women find their social status and acceptance disappear, that their inheritance or land rights are suddenly removed and abuse starts.
This is definitely not the case the world over, and each individual story is situated within specific circumstances. In Jamaica, the UN report notes, widowhood can “prove to be a period of enriching economic independence and increased status.” Yet with over 115 million of the world’s estimated 245 million widows living in extreme poverty this is more the exception than the rule.
Widows are often left solely responsible for bringing up their children, making land rights, pensions and inheritance central to survival. It is not uncommon for the husband’s family to sell his land without considering the rights of his widow. Land rights, where formally acknowledged, are often in the name of the husband as he was considered the ‘head of the household.’ Furthermore, though theoretical equality is promised in a state’s constitution, knowledge of the law is not particularly common in more rural areas where traditional justice systems often prevail. For those women who keep access to their land, life is not necessarily easier: As an example from Kenya, “Florence”, a widow at 34, was harrassed by her neighbor, a man who let his cows run riot in her field, destroying her crop.
Widowhood does not just affect older women: child brides married to older men may find themselves widowed before they are 30, with armed conflict and HIV/AIDS compounding the situation; “Children, teenagers or [women] in their 20s … will have to live with the stigma and discrimination attached to being a widow for almost their entire lives.”
There are programs aiming to improve widows’ lives and help them enjoy full access to their rights as granted by law, with the main projects being run by UN Women and/or the Loomba Foundation. The Foundation was set up by Lord Loomba, whose own mother was widowed. Her treatment at the hands of the community (including being told to leave her own son’s wedding as she would bring him ‘bad luck’) spurred Lord Loomba to create an organization specifically aimed at supporting widows and their children. There are three major programs underway in India, Guatemala and Malawi, run in conjunction with UN Women, working to promote these womens’ human rights and economic empowerment through global advocacy and educational activities.
Originally published here by the Foreign Policy Association.