Rural Widows – Commission on the Status of Women
UK NGO CSW Alliance Issue Paper on the Major Theme (CSW62)
Widowhood is an issue that affects the economic, political and social situation of women and is a barrier to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. It is a global development challenge that must be urgently addressed by CSW so that no women are left behind. Therefore, it is imperative that the status of widows is prioritised in the implementation of all SDGs, especially in Goal 5, and is given proper visibility in the Agreed Conclusions of CSW62 and future meetings. Widows’ rights are human rights and they have been ignored for too long.
There is a common misconception that widowhood is an issue that affects only older women. While it is true that older women are disproportionately affected by widowhood, the Commission must also recognise the wider issues that affect the status of all widows, including child widows, around the world. This means developing a better understanding of widow’s intersectional identities; including how her age, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, and disability affect her rights and capabilities. Furthermore, the Commission has a duty to make substantive recommendations that encourage a better understanding of the relationships between widowhood and the social world; including issues connected to rural and urban life, armed conflict, HIV and AIDs, harmful traditional practices, natural disasters, and among others, economic empowerment.
To date, CSW has ignored the significance of widows, despite its support for tackling early and/or forced marriage. Yet, early/forced marriage and widowhood are intrinsically linked and sustain intergenerational cycles of poverty: for example, when young women and girls are forced to marry older, widowed men, the chances increase that they will become child/young widows. Indeed widowhood may be understood as a driver of early/forced marriage. In CSW61’s agreed conclusions, there is for the first time one mention of widows in relation to the essential need for disaggregated data to include ‘marital status’. We welcome the addition of this language, but it must now be both protected and built upon in future Agreed Conclusions. This is so that the number of widows, their opportunities and life course, and the chances of their children (especially their daughters), may be understood and addressed.
Barriers to the full participation of widows in rural life
- Harmful Laws and Traditional Practices: The negative impacts of laws and traditional practices are exacerbated for widows due to highly discriminatory patriarchal social structures, abusive interpretations of religious, customary and traditional laws and codes that condone violence and the exploitation of widows as chattels who can be passed around as part of the dead man’s estate. Specific practices include degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites that involve ritual cleansing through forced sex are forms of torture. Equally, the accusation and stoning to death of widows as witches, is still prevalent in many rural communities in Africa. Widows may also be excluded from inheritance, land ownership, protection from violence, pensions, and social support.
- Violence Against Women and Girls: The violence rural widows experience may be physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and verbal. There is less provision by local authorities and hence it is more difficult to access health centres, rape crisis and domestic abuse support in rural areas.
- Across regions, cultures, ethnicities, religions, the vernacular terms for widows are synonymous with: Prostitute, whore, sorceress, witch
- Education: Rural widows are often illiterate, ignorant of their rights, and have no access to modern justice systems. Traditional justice systems, and alternative community dispute systems (ADS) may be corrupt, misogynistic and patriarchal and widows endanger themselves by attempting to get justice either in these venues, or in the modern system. Yet, legal protection is urgent: for example many have no binding marriage contracts leading to the possible loss of their children and homes, lack of financial security and the loss of possessions on becoming widowed. Education and training also supports widows in social action and enables them to become leaders of their communities.
- Conflict: Conflict and displacement exacerbates the traditional violence and abuse that rural widows experience, even in peace times. Rural widows, who have often witnessed the murder of their husbands, may be rape victims themselves and are frequently caught between the two opposing factions, rebels and government forces, as in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal and others. They and their children, fleeing the violence and poverty of their villages, predominate in IDP (internally displaced person) and refugee camps in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. They are the last to be resettled or returned in safety to their home villages, due to the problems of inheritance and land rights and the customary patriarchal stigma of widowhood. The international community urgently needs to address these issues.
- Migration: Rural widows are forced to become new urban widows, as they leave the violence, poverty, and food insecurity of their villages to join the most exploited of women in the towns and cities, relying on begging, exploited labour, as domestic servants, in prostitution, and on selling or surrendering themselves and their daughters to traffickers, especially for commercial sexual exploitation.
- Austerity: Austerity cuts have reduced the value of pensions and closed down other support services essential for the well-being and decent life of widows living in rural areas, such as reduced or non-existent transport systems and poor provision of broadband with its indispensible internet accessibility.
- Missing Data: There is a lack of robust quantitative or qualitative data on the number and experiences of widows. There is even no basic count. How many widows exist in each country and region? How old are they? What social support systems are in place for them? What are their barriers to political, social and economic empowerment? Without the category, ‘marital status’, such figures are impossible to know.
- Language: The term ‘marital status’ should to be included in all future CSW Agreed Conclusions and data be collected using this category.
- Research and Disaggregated Data: Alternative methodologies should be developed to help gather quantitative and qualitative information on widows. In Nepal, local “mapping and profiling” projects facilitate rural widows working with local and district authorities who have provided evidence of both the numbers of widows and issues such as sexual violence against them, hitherto a taboo topic and kept invisible. We urge the UK Government to seek to persuade the European block, and hence other UN blocks, and member states to insist on a sharp focus on widowhood in the CSW62 Agreed Conclusions making the gathering of data, including the category, ‘marital status’, an essential and urgent requirement, leading to the recognition of widowhood as an issue of poverty.
- UN Mechanisms: In the context of Security Council Resolution 1325, subsequent SCRs and the implementation of CEDAW, governments and the UN must support widows to form their own associations so that their collective voice can be heard, to describe their needs, and roles. With education and training widows become key agents of change. They should be participants at Peace Accords, in Constitution and Law Reform commissions, and influence new policies that will empower all women, criminalising acts and the perpetrators of them that deprive widows of their rights and administer violence in breach of international laws and conventions. Such inclusion leads to changing perceptions of widows and hence to ceasing harmful behaviours damaging to widows themselves and especially to their daughters.
- CEDAW should consider a General Resolution on widowhood.
- Widowhood – an emerging issue: The UK NGO CSW Alliance has determined that widowhood is a prime priority for an emerging issue to be the focus of a future CSW.
Rural widows, including those of varying backgrounds, indigenous, and disabled widows and many other minorities will be left behind if such recognition is not forthcoming. Making widowhood an emerging issue would be a powerful tool in the prevention of this outcome.
Authored and edited by: Margaret Owen (Widows for Peace through Democracy – WPD), Annette Lawson (National Alliance of Women’s Organisations – NAWO), Emma Jones (University of East London – UEL), Margaret Clark (Soroptomists International, GBI – SIGBI)