Invisible Women, Invisible Problems
For many women around the world, the devastating loss of a partner is magnified by a long-term fight for their basic rights and dignity. Despite the fact that there are more than 258 million widows around the world, widows have historically been left unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in our societies.
Today, as armed conflicts, displacement and migration, and the COVID-19 pandemic leave tens of thousands of women newly widowed and many others whose partners are missing or disappeared, the unique experiences and needs of widows must be brought to the forefront, with their voices leading the way.
Experience from the past, shows that widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property grabbed after the death of a partner, and can face extreme stigma and discrimination, as perceived ‘carriers’ of disease. Worldwide, women are much less likely to have access to old age pensions than men, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women. In the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows may not have access to bank accounts and pensions to pay for healthcare if they too become ill or to support themselves and their children. With lone-mother families and single older women already particularly vulnerable to poverty, this is an area that needs urgent attention.
On International Widows’ Day, 23 June, take a look at some of the issues affecting widows around the world and what must be done to safeguard and advance their rights.
Problems for widows in developing countries
- No access to credit or other economic resources, even for childcare or education.
- No rights or limited rights, to inheritance or land ownership under customary and religious law.
- Dependent on the charity of their husbands’ relatives.
- Disowned by relatives and made homeless, forcing many women to seek informal work as domestic labourers or turn to begging or prostitution.
- In some cases, widows can become liable for the debts of a deceased spouse.
- Particularly across Africa and Asia, widows find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence – including sexual abuse – related to inheritance, land and property disputes.
- Widows are coerced into participating in harmful, degrading and even life-threatening traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites. In a number of countries, for example, widows are forced to drink the water that their husbands’ corpses have been washed in. Mourning rites may also involve sexual relations with male relatives, shaving of the hair and scarification.
- Poor nutrition, inadequate shelter and vulnerability to violence, combined with a lack of access to health care.
- Sexual and reproductive health needs of widows may go unaddressed.
- Widows are particularly vulnerable in the context of HIV and AIDS. Women may be kept unaware of the cause of their husband’s AIDS-related death and made to undergo ritual cleansing through sex with male relatives regardless of HIV status. The economic insecurity stemming from widowhood also drives some women and girls to sex work.
- Vast numbers of women are widowed due to armed conflict. In some parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, it is reported that around 50 per cent of women are widows, while there are an estimated three million widows in Iraq and over 70,000 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
- Widows struggle to care for themselves and their children in their own countries, refugee camps or countries of asylum.
- Trauma during and after the conflict: many women see their husbands tortured, mutilated or suffering other cruel and inhuman treatment. Widows may themselves be subject to discrimination or conflict-related violence – including sexual violence where they are raped, mutilated, or infected with HIV.
Towards Progress for Widows
The United Nations observes 23 June as International Widows Day (resolution A/RES/65/189) since 2011, to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need.
Now more than ever, this day is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows. This includes providing them with information on access to a fair share of their inheritance, land and productive resources; pensions and social protection that are not based on marital status alone; decent work and equal pay; and education and training opportunities. Empowering widows to support themselves and their families also means addressing social stigmas that create exclusion, and discriminatory or harmful practices.
Furthermore, Governments should take action to uphold their commitments to ensure the rights of widows as enshrined in international law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even when national laws exist to protect the rights of widows, weaknesses in the judicial systems of many States compromise how widows’ rights are defended in practice and should be addressed. Lack of awareness and discrimination by judicial officials can cause widows to avoid turning to the justice system to seek reparations.
Programmes and policies for ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages also need to be undertaken, including in the context of action plans to accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In post-conflict situations, widows should be brought in to participate fully in peacebuilding and reconciliation processes to ensure that they contribute to sustainable peace and security.
And in the context of COVID-19, widows must not be left out of our work to “build back better”. Let us ensure that our recovery prioritizes their unique needs and supports societies to be more inclusive, resilient and equal for all.