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The plight of widows: Invisible women, invisible problems

BY: Gender Desk

"For many women, becoming a widow does not just mean the heartache of losing a husband, but often losing everything else as well." – Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The loss of a partner is devastating. For many women, that loss is magnified by a long-term struggle for basic needs, their human rights and dignity.

They may be denied inheritance rights to the piece of land that they relied on for their livelihood or evicted from their homes, forced into unwanted marriages or go through traumatising widowhood rituals.

They are stigmatised for life, shunned and shamed, and many of these abuses go unnoticed, or even normalised.

According to the United Nation (UN) Women, currently there are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, and nearly one in 10 lives in extreme poverty. As women, they have specific needs, but their voices and experiences are often absent from policies that impact their survival.

International Widows Day is a global awareness day that takes place annually on June 23. The day was launched by the UN in 2010 to raise awareness of the violation of human rights that widows suffer in many countries following the death of their spouses.


Empowering widows

The event was first celebrated on June 23, 2011 in an effort to empower widows and help them to regain their rights and to encourage action in achieving full rights for widows, highlighting the need for more research and statistics into violence, discrimination and poverty suffered by widows.

The ultimate goal of the day is to develop resources and policies to empower widows and allow them to have access to education, work, healthcare and lives free of violence and abuse.

Once widowed, women in many countries often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of widow abuse.

They are often evicted from their homes and physically abused – some even killed – even by members of their own family.

In many countries, a woman’s social status is inextricably linked to her husband’s, so that when her husband dies, a woman no longer has a place in society.

To regain social status, widows are expected to marry one of their husband’s male relatives, sometimes unwillingly. For many, the loss of a husband is only the first trauma in a long-term ordeal.

To observe this year’s event, the UN Women captured the voices of some widows the UN body had worked with, as they push through the barriers in pursuit of a life with dignity, joy and aspirations.

They are from Syria, Guatemala, Pakistan and Togo, and have sought various kinds of support from the offices of the UN body in their respective countries.

In many countries with traditional societies, women find themselves left in poverty when their husband dies. In some countries, these women find themselves denied of inheritance and land rights, evicted from their homes, ostracised and abused.

The children of widows also often find themselves affected, withdrawn from school and they become more vulnerable to abuse, especially in the case of girls.

The UN body underscores the need for more research and statistics disaggregated by marital status, sex and age, in order to help reveal the incidence of widow abuse and illustrate the situation of widows.

Government’s action

Furthermore, it urges governments to 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 (SDGs).