The threat of Ebola spreading through rural communities in West Africa could be increased by traditional mourning rituals and practices, writes Tim Bridger for Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD). – July 2014

In some parts of West Africa, the traditional customs around burial and mourning could be helping the disease to spread. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids including urine and saliva, and can be passed on through clothes, sheets or surfaces that an infected person has touched. This means traditional mourning practices that require the body of the deceased to be washed by his widow, and may include her being forced to drink the water used to cleanse the corpse, put widows at an extreme risk of catching the disease.

Whilst public information and education campaigns have worked hard to eliminate this practice in cities, there is still evidence that it is carried out in remote villages and rural communities. As these are places that are likely to be far away from hospitals and medical teams, they are potential hotspots for Ebola to be passed on to the relatives of victims.

According to Professor Esther Nzewi, Professor of Clinical Psychology who has spent many years working in advocacy and public health education in West Africa, even in those parts of the countries where education campaigns have worked, the lack of professional undertakers poses a risk to the friends and family of the deceased. The ‘wake-keeping’ ceremonies require that the body of the deceased is prepared by friends and family in the family home, and kept lying in state overnight. Professor Nzewi explains that during this time there is a “high probability” that those attending could be infected by the virus. She advises that the body be buried immediately and the wake-keeping ceremonies be eliminated in all cases of suspected Ebola, to minimise the risk of re-transmission.

So far some 700 people are known to have died as a result of exposure to Ebola, with cases being reported in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. These countries have some of the most precarious healthcare systems in the world with Guinea being ranked 160th and Liberia 186 out of 190 countries. The World Health Organisation estimates that life expectancy in Sierra Leone is just 45 years, and a cholera outbreak there in 2012 spread to 26,000 cases. The infrastructure relies heavily on international volunteers for administering even basic healthcare programs. However, given the deaths of visiting medics over the past week, some aid organisations are considering pulling out and others have already left. Those treating the sick are most at risk, with top doctor Sheik Umar Khan succumbing to the illness in Sierra Leone after having treated more than 100 patients, and dozens of healthcare professionals throughout the regions dying for their efforts.

The UK government through the Department for International Development has pledged £2 million in aid to partners working in the region, including the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The UK, along with most other Western countries, has assessed that it is not at risk from Ebola, due to the robustness of its healthcare system and its experience dealing with potential outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The citizens of West Africa are not so lucky. The outbreak is yet another blow for the troubled regions and will create yet more widows, in addition to those from conflict and HIV / AIDS. The plight of widows in West African countries is precarious, particularly when the husband dies of a disease or an epidemic. The widow often gets blamed for ‘allowing’ the husband to die, and might be treated as a pariah, a witch or even the source of his illness. With a disease such as Ebola, which is little understood even in the West, there is a high likelihood that the widows of the dead will suffer, if they survive being in the presence of the corpse.

The social stigma attached to widowhood can blight the life of the woman, leaving her an outcast, chased off her land by her relatives, unable to inherit, to work, or to provide for her family. African widows, irrespective of ethnic groups, are among the most vulnerable and destitute in the region, according to the most recent UN report into issues of discrimination against widows.

Widows for Peace through Democracy has partner organisations throughout West Africa, and supports them in their mission to help widows who face ostracisation, violence and destitution. The main work of the organisation is raising awareness of widows’ plights and widows’ rights, helping to change traditional values and cultures that see the widow as less than a woman, and someone for whom widowhood has negated her womanhood. Through education, advocacy and training, widows are give the chance to retake their place in society, and to reclaim the power and potential they have as women and as individuals.

Pictured: A researcher works with the Ebola virus while wearing a Biosafety Level 4 hazmat suit to avoid infection. Image in public domain, courtesy of United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

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In Swaziland, discriminatory customs remain a reality for widows.

Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) have submitted our report to assist the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Committee in considering Swaziland’s State Report during its 58th session.

Customs still in practice in Swaziland include:

  • Degrading widowhood rites and cleansing rituals
  • Enforced seclusion and long mourning periods (up to three years)
  • Procreation agreements with the deceased younger husband’s brothers
  • Being turned away from voter registration due to wearing mourning clothes
  • Not being allowed to hold office
  • Discrimination in employment

Our report highlights issues that need addressed in the context of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

We recommend that the Government of Swaziland report on progress, and take measures to ensure equality and non-discrimination for widows in line with CEDAW. Please view our full report and recommendations

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Hope for Widows Project: Families with children and the Cow Scheme
Woman of Purpose has over 20 widows’ groups coming together to solve their problems and improve their income and homes. Over 200 widows benefit from the Cow Scheme.

July 2014.

Ten years ago, our partner Woman of Purpose carried out a survey on widows in Pallisa District, Uganda. They found that the majority of widows in the region were illiterate, working in other people’s gardens for survival, surviving on £1 or less per week, and could not control their late husbands’ property.

How things have changed...

July 2014

We are pleased to announce that our partner Women for Human Rights, Single Women Group (WHR) in Nepal has received excellent news following their advocacy letter to the Army in Nepal.

The Army has approved requests to compensate conflict-affected families, and reverse discriminatory policies.

WHR worked with Army Single Women and Injured Family (ASIF) in Nepal to raise discriminatory Army policies regarding conflict-affected families. They held workshops and meetings with high level officials, and submitted an advocacy letter to the Army Chief on 27 June 2014.

WHR received a call from Army Headquarters over the weekend confirming the Army has approved their requests:

  • Seven years’ salary to be paid as a lump sum to conflict-affected single women
  • Improved scholarships for children in conflict-affected families
  • Stipends for wives and mothers of disabled veteran soldiers
  • Three-wheelers [small electric vehicles] for disabled soldiers
  • 5% reservations for single women on Army recruitment

Congratulations to WHR, ASIF, and the widows of Nepal for this wonderful news!

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The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was held in London from 10-13 June 2014.
At the Summit, Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) hosted an event titled Justice for Widows in Conflict and After.

Our speakers discussed the status of conflict widows in their countries and what actions need to be taken to improve the situation. Speakers included (but were not limited to) :

Click here for their presentations.

Also see our video summary of our event.

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Widows for Peace through Democracy · ‘Justice for Widow Victims of Conflict and After’

Presentation given by Fehmije Luzha, Head of Psychosocial Counseling Department for Medika Gjakova in Kosovo

“Let me first greet and thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the issue of widowhood and the various reasons why these ladies suffer.

Following on from the armed conflict in Kosovo February 1998 to June 1999 there have been a lot of investigations begun, research conducted and documents produced on the plight of war widows and their fight to gain recognition of their situation and reparations for their suffering. 

This has highlighted the vast unmet need of the victims of sexual violence and the physical and mental torture that was indiscriminately inflicted upon women and young girls during this conflict.

The forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Serbia committed acts of horrific sexual violence against women and girls. This violence contributed to an atmosphere of fear and oppression to facilitate the expulsion of the population from many locations in Kosovo. It was part of the Serbian desire for ‘ethnic cleansing’.  This violence took place in or near the homes of the women or young girls, while in (arbitrary) detention and during flight from Kosovo to Albania and / or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Medika Gjakova under the umbrella of Medica Mondial works to improve their health, empower and reduce the poverty among widows and young girls and women with special emphasis on victims of sexual violence during the war. The great difficulty we have faced in finding these victims has been enhanced by the strong cultural and religious traditions and the taboos surrounding discussions of any kind about these types of subjects.

In our society the belief was that when a husband died the widow had no value, no life, no recognition as an individual–her life was finished. Widows were beaten down by cultural traditions and myths. Gradually this is beginning to change; starts are being made to break down the barriers of cultural traditions myths and stigma. Society is moving forward to help to release the hold of a very male dominated society, now accepting women and realizing that they have a value as individuals, a rightful place and voice in society, as well as a life of their own. They are not and should not be classed as second class citizens any longer.

We are beginning now to find women who are willing to admit to such violence, gaining their confidence and enabling them to talk about their trauma, to open up and begin to come to terms with what has happened to them, to admit to it and to face it realizing that it is not their fault.

By forming small groups where they can come together to discuss and support each other, by empowering them we are helping to enable them to move forward, and for most of them to start to have hope for the first time. By finding ways of coping they are beginning to look at the real possibility of building a better life for themselves, gaining social recognition as a person in their own right, and trying to gain access to and secure financial and legal rights–thus making it possible for them to provide a future for their families. Psychosocial group counseling and also one-to-one sessions are provided as well as gynecological and health checkups. We have also empowered them to be able to progress toward their desires and market their own produce, giving them economic and legal support where necessary. We are working with them to find ways of accessing legal rights and benefits for themselves as the widows have done in the recent past (getting pensions and benefits in honour of their husbands (martyrs) who had died fighting for their country.) 

We are helping them realize that they have a value as an individual, that life has a purpose for them, they have a voice and should be encouraged to use it to progress their struggle for recognition and acceptance and also for their comrades who suffered with them but have yet to ask for help. 

We have enabled them to summon up the courage to face and enter into society; some have been able to travel outside of their own home surroundings for the very first time since the war. They go out in small groups together, making short trips into the community, for social pleasure. They have been able to talk, smile, laugh and cry sharing their experiences together. Giving them a whole new outlook, taste and hope for the future–what could and should be their future.

The time is right for change. We are in the 21st Century and as such should be making large steps forward in enabling women to become accepted, valued and accountable in their own right. In the past they were not recognized, had no social or legal rights. They were not able to own land or property, have bank accounts or take decisions by themselves. All these things were done by men. Now they can have access to education, hold jobs, own property and land; work in areas of professional and high office. They should be held on the same platform, level and equal to men being afforded all the same rights, assistance and benefits.

Where do we go from here? Who is there to help us? How do we all work together to progress the rights of women? 

Holding conferences such as this one enables us to flag up the issues facing us, highlighting the resources available and gaining insight into all the different organizations that are already out there fighting in the women’s corner, and where we can focus our efforts in trying to better their cause.

There are many hurdles to be overcome and barriers that need to be broken down. Finance needs to be provided to help set up projects in the process of gaining justice for all. Governments must stand up and be accountable for their citizens in ensuring that human rights are protected and equal opportunities for all are pursued as a matter of great urgency, ensuring that a beneficial and respectful outcome for all is achieved.

Thanks to the amended law on the Status and Rights of Martyrs, (disabled veteran members of the Kosovo Liberation Army,) Civil Victims and their families, the President of Kosovo has established a National Council to investigate the situation of the survivors of sexual violence during the war with the specific agenda of coordinating the Institutions and Government agencies to work together, to gain recognition of their position and put in place measures to rehabilitate them and award financial benefits for their suffering in the form of pensions.

Now the focus should be on implementing the changes in the law and making sure that concrete steps are taken to progress the issue of compensation for the victims of sexual violence and trauma inflicted during the war. It is a big issue that needs a positive and very clear solution.

We know this work will be a challenge but we believe that with the creation of the right mechanisms to implement changes of the law and the finance provided to put this into practice, will greatly improve the life of widows and other women victims in Kosovo.

Thank you for your attention.”

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Annie Matundu-Mbambi, President – WILPF/ DRC

“Distinguished delegates and members of the panel.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the planning committee for all their work in preparation for this event and also to Widows for Peace through Democracy for this great opportunity accorded to Congolese Women to be represented in this meeting.

Congolese widow victims of armed conflict in the DRC, who struggle to rebuild their lives in the continuing violence and lawlessness of its aftermath, have a desperate need for real justice in reparations, compensation, and in accessing vital services.

In our country there are no pensions for the widows, no social security to support them when they are ill, frail, old, suffering, and when they are homeless and vulnerable to violence of all kinds, including sexual violence.

In the case of DRC, the conflict and the post conflict scenario has created and cemented the linkages between war widowhood and sexual violence. As a consequence of patriarchal customary prejudices, our widows suffer from multiple stigmas, displacement, hunger, poverty, and illiteracy. They become the most vulnerable to sexual violence and encounter insurmountable cultural, administrative and legal barriers to accessing essential services and resources. They have the least access to justice, both because they are unaware of their rights (under international as well as domestic laws) and because the very justice system is often biased against them. They can attract even more violence should they attempt to make a complaint in the formal justice system.

Widows as witnesses of war crimes and crimes against humanity, murder of their husbands and children.

During the conflict, many widows have had to witness the murder of their husbands before or after they have been raped. However, although the DRC has ratified the various international legal instruments on gender equality, in particular the UN Charter, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as well as the SADAC Protocol on Gender and Development, which requires African governments to legislate to eliminate discrimination against women, including widows–there has been little implementation of these instruments at the national level. Moreover, while the 2005 constitution declares the equality between men and women in public institutions, and the government has legislated other specific gender-related laws, such as on succession, wills, intestacy, inheritance, land and property and it has been decreed that irrespective of whether the dead husband left a will, women should not be disinherited–widows continue to face considerable problems in getting their rights under the law enforced.

According to the Family Code, currently under revision, on the death of a spouse, the division of belongings takes place according to the type of settlement chosen by them at the time of their marriage. But the majority of marriages, especially in rural areas, take place without such settlements, and many of the widows were married when they were still children, and have no knowledge on what agreements were made. The laws look good on paper, but in reality most widows have never been able to benefit from them.

The feminist Ezine describes the DRC as amongst the ‘’Ten Worst Countries for Women to live in today.’’

Cases of widows being disinherited are high in DRC but unfortunately, there are no official or reliable statistics for widow victims of conflict. Women make up 52% of adult population in DRC, and some NGOS estimate that, in Eastern Congo, over 40% of the population are widows. They also report that some 60% of Congolese children and 70% of the elderly are dependent on widows for their survival, for care, shelter and food.

Widows, where possible and where they can function, depend on various CSOs and NGOs for their support, for example, for trauma counselling and literacy, training and income generation programmes as they try to rebuild their lives.

Yet, for some of the widows, their first priority is to obtain justice, and they persevere in this endeavour in spite of the threats and intimidation they face.

Alas, however, only very few cases finally come to court. The costs are so high and there are so many obstacles to bringing a case to court, that obtaining justice is well beyond the reach of most widows.

There is an urgent need to support a baseline study to obtain information on the numbers, ages, numbers of dependents, needs, roles, coping strategies, support systems, and legal status. Without this data it is impossible to calculate what the widows, so many illiterate, need; or inform and influence national and international policy-makers, donors, other iNGOs and the UN so that they can initiate their complaints. They need specific assistance in how to process their testimonies so that the perpetrators of these sexual and other crimes against women can be convicted and punished, and so deter others from committing such criminal acts. They need free legal aid and proper protection before, during, and after trials since their giving of testimonies against their rapists can make them targets for further rape, torture, and death.

Widows in our traditional societies have from time immemorial been targets for violence and abuse, even in peace time. Harmful traditional practices include forms of torture like mourning and burial rites, widow inheritance, and the custom of levirate. Therefore this post-conflict period should provide the window through which customary violence in widowhood can be revealed and stopped. This customary violence, never addressed before the conflict, and the general low status of women has helped to fuel the terrible sexual violence against women that has occurred in the context of conflict, and is condoned by militias, the army, the police and criminals.

A good practice to be shared

There are few courts in rural areas and long distances, their cost, and the lack of security deters women from going to the urban courts. In DRC we have some mobile courts going out to the villages and the places, such as the mines, where the mass rapes are taking place. But the mobile courts cannot cover the whole country; therefore many women have no hope of getting compensation or reparations. Some widows manage to flee the country and seek asylum overseas, such as Congolese Human Rights Defender Chebeya’s widow, but it is difficult for them to prove their cases as they have no documentation or forensic evidence of their rape or their torture.

What needs to be done?

What do we need to do in terms of resources, training, reporting, and changing legal systems for widows and generally ensure that perpetrators are identified, charged, convicted and punished?

It is important for us to join hands in asking the government, the donors and the NGO to come to the rescue of Widows.

The focus should be to develop a network across the region to exchange information and learn from each other’s experiences. It may lead to the inclusion of the widows to access their rights, make their voices heard, and influence policy and law reforms.

In consultation with the widows themselves, they wish for programs and projects that see them not just as the victims of war, requiring emergency relief–but as women with potential, if given appropriate support, for education and training, and for full participation in peace-building and reconciliation processes. We need as a women’s organization, to advocate for access to the justice system that should give widows protection and rights to inheritance, land and property. The use of international legal instruments like CEDAW is important for the advancement of widow’s rights.

The UNSCR 1325 offers a tool to lobby for the international community and the government to address the situation of widows and their children, analyse the impact of conflict on their lives and future and ensure that policies are developed to address their situations.

What we need to recommend

As women delegated from around the world gathered at the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, we need to advocate for the widows, to mobilise, to organise, to empower and to network rights with an ultimate goal of promoting peace and reconciliation in the countries affected by the war. We need to recommend that:

Government should ensure justice for the women and girls, tackling the culture of impunity for the perpetrators, and take into account the situation of widows in its social and development policy to be implemented.

The UN needs to take action to achieve the MDGs and the objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, and its subsequent resolutions, including all international and regional policy networks.

Donors should support initiatives to reduce poverty and promote equality, development and peace. Empower the widow to participle fully in their country’s development on an equal basis and support local justice.

International NGOs could conduct studies to highlight the needs of widows at the national level.

National and local NGOs need to enable widows to create their own spaces to allow them to share and build on their knowledge as a way to empower themselves. They must fight to ensure that widows’ voices are heard by their governments, so that every widow is protected by law from discrimination, violence and abuse, and can enjoy her full human rights as an equal and valuable member of society.

Widows themselves need to create the network to denounce impunity and to seek justice for their rights through the courts.

In Conclusion: ‘’Justice to be achieved when millions of people collaborate on this issue ‘’

The Widows Without Rights Conference held in London, 6-7 February 2001, drew attention to extreme hardships facing widows in developing countries and in post-conflict situations.

Through its declaration, delegates called on Governments and the international community to become aware of the special needs and rights of widows. Through the Summit, we call governments, donors and the international community to achieve reparation and indemnisation in bringing the widows justice, dignity, compensation and services.

Their voices can be heard, and the injustices they experience both during and after conflict can be identified and addressed. Widows have the right to live life without being discriminated against because they are widows.

Grant widows justice, and they can be independent and stop begging.

Thank you for attention.”

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Speech by Jihan Ibrahim, Kurdish Women of Rojava

“Dear Friends,
I am delighted to be here and participate in this event but dismayed to have to share with you the suffering of Rojava’s Kurdish women in Syria.
The use of rape and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflicts is one of the most brutal war crimes, inflicting severe suffering on victims, and destroying individuals, families and communities.
The dictatorial and chauvinist regimes around the world are using rape and other forms of sexual violence as political means of brutal oppression, destroying the expression of the free will of its people and preventing real democracy and peace. Since the Baathist Assad regime took power in Syria by a military coup in 1963, it has implemented the racist and gender discriminatory policies to eradicate the existence of the Kurdish ethnicity and community.
These policies had a severe impact on Kurdish women who are deprived of all basic human rights. Kurdish women have been prevented from educating themselves and their children in their mother language and from participating in social and political developments and were threatened by sexual violence if they participated. Kurdish women were not allowed to obtain marriage certificates, to register their children or send them to school.

This regime has used sexual violence as a political tool to prevent Kurdish women from participating in the struggle against social and political oppression and injustice. Nazilye Kajal, a women’s rights and political activist was arrested in 2004 by the Assad regime in Damascus and since then her fate is unknown, despite campaigns from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations.

Since the militarisation of the Syrian pro-democracy and freedom uprising and the destruction of its objectives, the Syrian people have been suffering from sectarian civil war in which extremist armed jihadists such the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISISI) and Jabah Al-Nusra which are affiliated to Al-Qaeda took control and are brutally attacking all efforts of building democracy and peace in Syria. In Al-Raqqa governorate, which ISIS declared an Islamic state, the Syrian people and particularly women are  facing the most barbaric oppression from those jihadists who are forcing women and girls to cover their heads and wear Islamic clothes and stop them from going out without any male adult relative accompanying them. A woman or girl can be persecuted or arrested and threatened with prison if she is not following ISIS rules. In June 2013 ISIS and other armed jihadist groups declared publicly that the Kurdish people were infidels and according to sharia law Kurdish women and property are allowed to be raped and kidnapped. Later ISIS announced a fatwa encouraging local women and girls to allow jihadists to have sex with them (jihad nikah) as jihadists left their wives behind and have come for jihad. Many girls and women from North African countries joined jihadists and were consequently gang raped.

Despite this brutal civil war in Syria and its gender oppressive authoritarian regime and the reactionary attitude of the opposition towards women in Syria and the Middle East, we, Kurdish and other non-Kurdish women – who are all peacefully living together in Rojava – jointly organised ourselves and are actively helping to protect our families and communities and managing to keep away from this brutal war. We continue to struggle with determination to consolidate the democratic values of building a just, equal and democratic society where free women are leading the struggle for progress and create the conditions that allow women to be able to make and defend their own choices. We Rojava women enjoy full equality with men by participating in and establishing the regional democratic self-governing institutions and organisations and we have formed women’s autonomous training and educational institutions.

In Syria in general and ROJAVA in particular, we have established 26 women’s training and educational centres called Mala Jiyane (life home), where women will be able to, for example, produce sewing workshops, organise teaching courses and receive training for child and health care  and undertake social activities. In this way women will become productive, self- reliant and supported both spiritually and financially. In Rojava, there are thousands of women who lost their husbands and children in the fight against both the regime and the jihadist armed groups. These survivors have organised themselves and formed a “families of martyrs society” which receives support from volunteers and charities. In addition there are tens of hundreds who were separated from their husbands and families as a result of the civil war, and who are now refugees.

Rojava has become a safe haven for more than 1.2 million internally displaced people. Most are women and children from all over the Syrian cities and are all different ethnicities: Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Christians who have fled this brutal war. Those vulnerable IDP victims are assisted by the very limited resources of Rojava. They are in urgent need for humanitarian aid.

To end the sexual violence and support those widows who are victims in Rojava and Syria, we would recommend the following:

  1.  Support women’s educational centres and those widows who are victims of sexual violence to enable them to be productive and self- reliant, and able to manage their affairs freely.
  2.  Provide medical and psychological  support and assistance for trauma counselling and expert treatment.
  3.  Call for urgent humanitarian aid to be sent to those victims and to people in need in Rojava.
  4.  Provide financial support to those victims to be able to manage themselves to prevent conflict and violence.
  5.  Seek justice and hold the perpetrators accountable for their war crimes.”

Rojava Women Society

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