Who are the invisible women in our society? It is said that these women are “absent from statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organizations.” This is the situation of widows in our society.
In many places, a widow becomes a non-person. The plight of widows is one of the most under-reported human rights issues facing our world today.
Through the advocacy efforts of the Loomba Foundation, On December 21, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted June 23 as International Widows Day, to raise awareness of the plight of widows and their children, aiming to restore their human rights and through education and real empowerment help to alleviate the poverty and discrimination into which widowhood can plunge them.
There are 258 million widows with 585 million dependent children across the globe. Of these 38 million live in extreme poverty. 86 million have suffered physical abuse. Women are more likely to become widows than men, because women live longer than men and many women tend to marry older men. Many widows are forced to fight for their survival, for their basic human rights and to overcome many obstacles to ensure their socio-economic development.
Once widowed, in some countries, they are accused of killing their husbands either deliberately or through neglect. Widowhood is stigmatized and seen as a source of shame; they are rejected as immoral and regarded as burdens. In Afghanistan widows are turned out into the streets to beg by their in-laws. In some cultures they are thought to be cursed and are even associated with witchcraft. In some parts of Nepal and India, widows are discriminated as witches and face violence. In many countries they are subjected to degrading socio-cultural practices – in Ghana, to rid the widow of the spirit of the deceased, she is forced to have sex with strangers. After the death of the husband, in many countries, a woman no longer has a place in society. Often they are evicted from their homes, physically abused and are denied their inheritance and land rights. In Kenya widows are excluded from inheriting from their husbands. Sometimes they are forced to marry a male relative of the husband to live in the house and have protection. After the death of a husband, the life journey of widows becomes a long term ordeal; they suffer violence, expulsion, and ostracism.
In India, widows are expected to mourn till they die. A widow is deprived of her core femininity and sexuality. From being a person, she becomes an “it” and in some places she is called a man eater and a prostitute. Widows are cast into social death, they are regarded as untouchables and their sight and touch are considered to bring bad luck to people in some areas. Widows in some parts of north India move into temple cities to take shelter in ashrams, condemned to a life of abject poverty. Besides begging for living, they spend their time in temple rituals and prayers. Often they are subjected to violence, rape and trafficking into prostitution, especially younger widows.
All these atrocities are frequently justified in terms of cultural-religious practices. Very seldom the perpetrators are brought before law and punished. Hence, widow abuse goes on with impunity. Widows in developed countries are also affected by welfare cuts and increased insecurity.
Vast numbers of women are widowed due to armed conflicts and HIV and AIDS. Worst affected are widows in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Syria, northeast Nigeria, southeast Niger, west Chad and north Cameroon. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, nearly 50% women are widows. Iraq has over three million widows, while Afghanistan has 2.5 million.
When we speak about “widows” there is a general assumption that we are talking about elderly women, and it is elderly widows who have received the most attention from service providers. But widows are of all ages. Some are young mothers, and some are girls as young as eight or nine years old, who face bleak futures as they bear the triple disadvantage of gender, marital status, and being underage. They are deprived of their human rights to health, education, protection from sexual violence and economic exploitation. These child widows are mostly to be found, uncounted and unheard, living in remote rural areas, especially in Africa and South Asia. There is very little reliable data on child widows and they have received scant attention from the UN, their own governments or international human rights bodies.
The children of widows are often affected, both emotionally and economically. Widowed mothers are providing for their families alone, without any family or societal support system. Often they are not able to provide schooling, healthcare and nutrition. Children are also compelled to support their families financially, making them vulnerable to forced labor and prime targets for human trafficking. Widows with only female children aged between 10 – 17 face discrimination and suffer multiple deprivations and they become vulnerable to trafficking and sexual abuse.
Women empowerment and gender equality are a cross cutting issue of Sustainable Development Goals. Where do widows figure in our commitment to “leave no one behind”? Probably, at the bottom of the pile; still invisible and unheard. The plight of widows around the world is a societal tragedy. One of the main reasons for the continuing cycle of poverty and deprivation is the status of widows. It is important for us to acknowledge the problems of these women and empower them through adequate healthcare, education, decent work, full participation in decision making and public life. They need tools to support themselves, provide for their children to end the cycle of inter-generational poverty and deprivation. We need to see them as contributors to society, not as objects of pity or shame. All widows deserve to live a life with dignity, free of violence and abuse.
The Vincentian Family is touching the lives of many widows in developing and developed world through a variety of ministries. We can have a preferential option for the empowerment of widows, if we consider them as the poorest of the Poor.
Steps you can take:
- Advocate for the implementation of existing laws that protect women, their inheritance rights
- Start a practice of helping terminally ill men to write their will, to allow a woman to inherit his wealth – house, land and other properties
- Help prosecute perpetrators of violence, rape and traffickers