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Statement by Widows for Peace through Democracy, March 2010.

Widows Must Be Differentiated From Women

WIDOWS, especially in developing countries, are the very poorest and most vulnerable of women, and suffer from significant discrimination and abuse due to oppressive interpretations of religion and tradition across a range of regions and cultures. Yet widows and widowhood are nowhere mentioned in the Beijing Platform for Action or in the Outcome Document of Beijing + 5.

WPD (Widows for Peace through Democracy) urges Member States at the 54th session on the Status of Women (CSW) to ensure that, in its “agreed conclusions” in relation to the 12 Action areas of the Platform, the particular needs and roles of Widows are acknowledged and steps are identified for Member States to redress the status of widows, as we have urged at every session of the CSW since 1998.

Certain categories of women – such as widows – merit special attention and differentiated programs and policies because they are recipients of specific negative treatments and bear specific disadvantages which must be remedied before the international community will be able to reach the goals for women and children that we all work towards.

The status of widows worldwide becomes more alarming every year as armed conflict, ethnic violence, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, harmful traditional practices, and natural disasters have resulted in an unprecedented increase in the numbers of widows of all ages, from the very old, to the young mother, and the girl child. A common feature of modern-day conflicts is the separation of men and boys from women and girls. The killing of male members of society has resulted in a huge increase in the number of widows. The current financial crisis and climate change exacerbate the conditions of the poor and the vulnerable, and therefore of widows and their children. Developed countries also now need to look at widowhood, especially in the context of ageing populations, the recession, unemployment, and migration. Extreme poverty due to deprivation of human rights exposes widows to economic and sexual exploitation, trafficking, disease and death in widow-specific and devastating ways.

Since customary and religious laws in various countries create derogatory environments for widows, widows often are unable to speak about discrimination they experience for fear of lack of support and even reprisal. Coupled with a lack of data on widows, this means that the scope and level of conditions for widows can only be estimated.

Omission of widows in formal documents has significant policy and legal implications as discrimination against widows is thereby rendered invisible and therefore immune to punishment, and widows, an already excluded group, become increasingly marginalised. This discrimination against widows, both within the family and within the community, becomes, in effect, condoned by States when they fail to address widows' issues.

It is essential that Member States now identify, count, and analyse the living conditions, needs, roles and hopes of widows in their jurisdictions, in keeping with the principles of the BPFA, the CEDAW, and UN SCRs 1325, 1820, 1889 and 1890. Strategies to achieve the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) will fail if the situations of widows and their children are ignored. In other words, many problems that widows and their children face can only be alleviated by programs and policies that directly address their status as widows and widows' children because these problems have been caused by their status as widows and widows' children.

Widows are differentially and negatively treated in every one of the 12 action areas. Paragraph 68 (a) should require that data be disaggregated to include “marital status”, along with gender and age. Statistical indicators should assess the rights and conditions of widows, including but not limited to, statistics on land, property, credit, training, employment, social security, healthcare, violent incidents, refugees, migrants, participation in negotiations, etc. New data should be collected to investigate the status of widows in relevant areas in which data is currently uncollected.

A summary of the issues specific to widows are listed under each of the 12 action areas below.

Twelve Action Areas - The Special Factors for Widows

1. Women and Poverty.
A. Widows experience a unique lack of rights to inheritance, land and
property ownership, leading to abject poverty:
• Widows in many traditional communities are stripped of their belongings and evicted from their homes by the husband’s male relatives upon his death.
• Even in developed countries, the dependence of elderly widows on State pensions often indicates they live in relative poverty.
• In developing countries, there are few social security safety nets for widows at all. If a pension scheme does exist, it is usually of little monetary value, and easy for male relatives to exploit.
• Eligibility requirements for benefits often mean that only a minority of widows receive these benefits, due to issues of illiteracy, mobility and access for widows.

B. The poverty of widows extends and expands to the lives and futures
of their children:
• Widows often withdraw their children from school, requiring their labour for the family to survive.
• A disproportionate number of the children begging on the streets of developing countries are the children of widows.

2. Education and Training.
Married when young, many widows are illiterate and untrained, and yet they are
the sole supporters of their families.
• The children of widows are often withdrawn from school for their labour, with daughters most likely to be withdrawn since their educational needs are so often undervalued.
• The daughters of widows are also likely to be withdrawn from school to enter forced early child marriage with an older man, yielding another cycle of impoverished young widowhood when that man dies.

3. Women and Health.
Research has shown the morbidity and mortality of widows is sharply higher
than of married women of a similar age. Contributing factors are:
• Traditional widowhood rites which are often injurious and demeaning
• Poverty, lack of shelter or adequate nutrition, and exploitative labour
• Sexual exploitation and forced remarriage, both of which have implications relating to the spread of HIV/AIDS
• Poor access to medical care, coupled with social shame, the stigma of AIDS, cost and distance as added deterrents.
• Minimal access to reproductive facilities or the ability to exercise their rights over their own fertility
• In conflict-afflicted countries where sexual violence predominates, widows are often the first targets, being without male protection, and often receive severe enough injuries to make it difficult to travel to obtain medical assistance.

4. Violence Against Women.
Customary and religious laws in various countries may legitimise physical, sexual
and psychological violence against widows. This violence is in effect condoned by
States when they fail to address it.
• Widespread and systematic violence suffered by widows due to their status as widows must be identified as such and Widows included in Paragraphs 113 &116.
• Governments must ensure that widows are protected from violence, including within countries which are CEDAW members, despite that State's customary and religious laws.
• Governments, international organisations and NGOs must close the information gap by studying the causes and consequences of violence against widows and take appropriate measures to eradicate it.

5. Women in Armed Conflict.
Widows are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations in situations of
armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, military occupation and the lawlessness that
pertains in post-conflict countries.
• Widows predominate amongst IDPs and refugees, and are the last to be rehabilitated and re-integrated into society when peace agreements come to fruition.
• Long after conflicts have ceased, widows continue to bear the brunt of the social, economic and upheaval endemic in such societies.
• Wives of the missing are equally adversely affected, and are further unable to rebuild their lives due to ambiguities as to their legal status.
• The implementation of UNSCR 1325 must include gathering data on the effect of widowhood in conflict-afflicted countries, and also ensuring the representation of widows in the peace-building process.

6. Women and the Economy.
Customary traditions make it hard for widows to achieve economic independence
and parity. Contributing factors include:
• Lack of access to land, finance and credit
• Limitations on widows’ mobility
• Lack of remuneration for the work widows do as sole carers for their dependents
• Governments must devise economic policies that enable widows to contribute to the economy and fulfil their family obligations at the same time.

7. Women in Power and Decision Making.
Widows, due to their social isolation and low status, are often excluded from both
the politics and positions of power.
• Before all policy decisions are made, an analysis of the potential policy's impact on widows of all ages must be conducted.
• Widows must be assisted to take a meaningful role in decision-making at all levels, particularly with regard to policies relating to the achievement of the MDGs; the Beijing Platform for Action; and the implementation of all human rights and UN conventions.
• The international community and Governments must support widows to organise their own associations and represent their own interests.
• Governments must ensure that widows are included in all peace negotiation processes.

8. Institutional Mechanisms for the Advancement of Women.
The lack of information regarding widows in nearly every member State makes it
almost impossible for effective programs and policies to be developed that will
achieve the international community's goals for women's progress.
• Ministries for women established in member States must be granted sufficient resources to conduct research into the situation and numbers of widows and to collaborate with widows' associations.

9. Human Rights of Women.
Widowhood must be incorporated into all policies and programmes for women
and their human rights in the context of the CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for
Action and other human rights conventions. Governments must:
• Deal with Reservations by CDAW signatories via law
• Educate all citizens about human rights norms, and particularly ensure that widows are made aware of their rights
• Implement human rights norms
• Particularly ensure that widows know their rights in situations of armed conflict

10. Women and the Media.
The media can play an important role in advancing the rights of widows
• Alter social attitudes towards widows by refraining from presenting widows in negative or sensational ways and highlighting widows' contributions to society
• Alert widows to their rights

11. Women in the Environment.
In cases of migration and displacement due to environmental factors, it is most
likely to be widows and their dependents who are left behind.

In addition, widows have essential roles to play in ensuring sustainable and ecologically sound development as they may be more open to new models and new methodologies as they build their lives anew.

12. The Girl Child.
Daughters of widows are likely to suffer from numerous and multiple
disadvantages that disproportionately affect them as compared with all girls,
these disadvantages being in contravention of the principles enunciated in the
Convention on the Rights of the Child:
• Increased likelihood of more severe poverty as a result of their mother’s low socio-economic and sole head of household status
• Increased likelihood of withdrawal from school
• Increased likelihood of early marriage or worse
• Governments must collect data and information on the outcomes specific to children whose mothers are widowed and child widows
• Governments must abolish laws and customs that are injurious to the girl child and disproportionately to widows' daughters (such as child marriage and forced remarriage).

Margaret Owen Director, WPD
Augustina Akoto WPD Trustee

at the 54th UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)

Parallel Event: Wednesday March 3rd, 1:00 – 3:00 pm
820 Second Avenue (43rd & 44thSt), 2nd Floor, ICJW-NYB



1. That the UN SG commission a Special Report on Widowhood in Conflict (suggested to OSAGI in 2008), with the research and reportage undertaken in collaboration with women’s and widows’ organizations in 11 conflict-afflicted countries (similar model to Machel Report: “Children in Conflict”.)

2. That the UN SG appoint a UN Special Rapporteur on Widowhood

3. That the United Nations, Governments and Donors devise flexible funding policies to support WIDOWS "banding together" in order that they may develop a collective voice, articulate their needs, proclaim the crucial nature of their roles in their communities, be represented in decision-making, in peace-building negotiations, and in committees for constitutional and law reform.

4. That the “gap in data on widows and widowhood issues” be identified as a major obstacle to progress in this neglected area of gender and human rights. Since conventional survey and census methods are inappropriate for capture of this data, the UN, Governments and Donors must support, with appropriate funding, the Ministries of Women (and other relevant Ministries) gathering data in collaboration with women’s and widows’ NGOs, utilizing alternative methods to gather that data, such as National “Mapping and Profiling” projects.

5. That CEDAW consider development of a “General Recommendation” to State
Parties to identify and address the status of widows in their own countries. That
CEDAW also consider development of a Questionnaire to State Parties concerning
numbers, ages, life-styles, economic, health and social status of widows, with
particular reference to rights in the areas of inheritance, land, property, remarriage, harmful traditional practices, including mourning and burial rites, physical and
sexual violence, and stigma due to HIV and AIDS.

6. That the UN, together with the Commonwealth Secretariat, the World Bank and
other international development agencies, host TWO (2) INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCES in 2011-2012 on WIDOWHOOD, HUMAN RIGHTS, POVERTY and JUSTICE in Africa and Asia, following completion of a preliminary UN report on
Widowhood (see Recommendation #1).

7. That WIDOWHOOD issues be mainstreamed into all international and regional policy meetings in order to be effective in implementing the Beijing PFA, the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), the UN SCRs 1325, 1820, 1889, and 1890, and introduced into all conferences, especially those concerned with Human Rights, HIV and AIDS, Trafficking, Conflict Resolution, and Violence Against Women.
8. That all National Action Plans (NAPS) for the implementation of UN SCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions on the Advancement of Women should include “widows” as a specific category.

The hidden lives of Child Widows

Article published by Margaret Owen OBE

Women for Human Rights, along with Pro Public filed for the rights of Vaikalya (child widows) on 28th December, 2009. Vaikalyas are considered worst than widows and have many codes of conducts.

After 3 years of continuous advocacy and lobby from WHR, on 16th May, 2012, the Supreme Court announced that such traditions are ill practices. The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare must establish a working committee to see this practice is eliminated.

The Ministry will also collect data on the number of Vaikalyas and their conditions. It will also raise awareness on this issue and see that various programs are established to empower child widows ( Vaikalyas).

This is a great victory against the tradition of Vaikalyas!

Lily Thapa
Women for Human Rights, single women group (WHR)
Organisation in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
Baluwatar, Kathmandu, Nepal


 On the Run ...
with Margaret Owen, OBE ...

The International Criminal Law Bureau Blog has interviewed Margaret Owen OBE as the first feature in our 'On the Run' interview series.

Margaret has recently been made a Door Tenant of the
9 Bedford Walk Chambers
(specialising in ICC and UN tribunals trying war crimes).

Please click on the link below for the interview:
You can also read the article here:
Article published by Kathryn Hovington on May 9th, 2012


26 January 2011

By Roula Ayoubi BBC News, Baghdad

Years of conflict in Iraq have left the country with more than one million war widows and a shortage of young unmarried men - pressures that may be bringing about the return of polygamy.

Politicians have suggested financial incentives for men who marry widows

Hanan lost eight members of her family in the war, including her husband, and was left to bring up three children alone.

The experience has not broken her. She continues to work as a hairdresser in her noisy and lively home on Haifa Street in Baghdad .

But she still needs a "man-shelter", she says - and this is why she ended up married to a married man.

"When he proposed to me, he said he was divorced," she says.
"But after we got married, he got back together with his first wife, because he has children with her."

He now stays with Hanan once a week. But while she has only reluctantly accepted a situation where she shares a husband with another woman, some in Iraq are actively promoting the idea of polygamy.

It's a practice that became less common in the 20th Century, but politicians put forward a proposal last year to offer married men financial incentives to take on a second wife.

Iraqi widows
•There are estimated to be about one million widows in Iraq
•One in 10 households in Iraq are headed by women, rising to 18% in some districts
•In cities across Iraq , women are harassed for engaging in their professions, wearing clothes deemed inappropriate, or simply stepping out of their homes
Under current Iraqi law, polygamy is illegal unless authorised by a judge - though it is part of the country's Islamic tradition and has been backed in recent years by some religious groups.

In Iraq 's largest province, Anbar, a charity called Angel of Mercy has been helping widows remarry for the last four years. Dozens of marriages have been completed, with the widows often marrying their husband's relatives.

Women's leaders are divided on the subject.

Nada Ibrahim, a member of parliament, supports the idea of polygamous marriage in principle - as long as a husband treats his wives "with justice".

However, she also believes that the government should provide more support for widows, to make it easier for them to survive without men.

"Widows are often young and don't have jobs, health insurance or social security. We shouldn't encourage them only to get married," she says.

Hana Edwar of the Amal charity also believes that the government should help widows financially to enable them to decide their own fate. She's firmly opposed to polygamous marriage.
"It's about women's dignity," she says. "Women need to be educated about their rights."
Women in illegal second marriages are often "in an inferior situation where they are unprotected and prone to abuse by men", she adds.
But one of Hanan's reasons for remarrying was that she felt unprotected as a widow.

"I used to feel vulnerable with no support, afraid that anyone could attack me and anyone could harass me," she says.
"In the beginning I used to feel angry - I used to cry”
"A man's protection is like a shelter. And this is what a woman needs from a man."
Unlike some widows, she is capable of supporting her children alone.
Her second husband, Mostafa, a friend of her first husband's, offered her much-needed support after his death in 2005. They married a year ago.
She says she had to accept his reconciliation with his first wife, because she could not come between him and his children.
Another factor influencing her feelings was her own pregnancy with Mostafa's child.
"The little foetus in my womb ended our problems and made us accept things and stop arguing," she says.
"In the beginning I used to feel angry. I used to cry. But I learned how to cope. What do I gain from my situation if I keep feeling angry and sad? I need to accept the reality." 


Any further information, please contact: Margaret Owen, (Director, WPD) email: