Image courtesy of UN Women.

By Heather Rainey, WPD Intern.

As the number of widows and wives of the missing continues to grow, the international community remains silent on this ever-pressing issue. The neglect from national governments and other global institutions, including the United Nations (UN), serves to increase the poverty, displacement and vulnerability that widows and their children face daily.

Areas such as Yemen that are fighting severe political instability are also dealing with underlying social issues including unemployment, corruption and extreme food shortages.
According to UN statistics, 2020 marked the fourth consecutive year of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is universally accepted that poverty significantly affects women more than men, as it exacerbates their already disadvantaged position in society. However, the status of widowhood adds extra layers of discrimination – in areas like Yemen, and many other middle eastern countries, a widow has no claim on her husband’s property; thus, widows are left with no property or assets. The normative social ideal of paternalism means that women are expected to have a male relative, or husband to provide for her; hence the high levels of illiteracy in widows. This leaves these women with no back-up plan for when her husband passes away, often forcing them into informal labour subjecting them and their children to further discrimination and exposure to violence.

Furthermore, widows in South Asia are often subject to horrific patriarchal rituals, including being forced to drink the bathwater of their husband’s dead bodies and have unprotected sex to ‘cleanse themselves of the sin of causing their husbands death’. According to the UN India is home to around 42 million widows, many of whom are children. The intersection with child brides again further complicates the issue. Many widows are forced to sell off their children as brides, again contributing to the cycle of violence for women. These inhumane rituals strip widows of any agency or dignity and contribute heavily to the operation of patriarchal norms.

The plight of widows is something that urgently needs addressing but the lack of official government statistics on the matter adds to the difficulty of grasping a true understanding of just how immense the scale of this issue is.

Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) takes on the task of supporting widows regardless of age, marital status, religion, ethnicity, caste, class or nationality, aiming to allow widows to enjoy their human rights to the full. WPD has ECOSOC consultative status at the UN, meaning the opportunity to participate fully in the UN system, including attending sessions, submitting official reports on widow’s concerns and hosting UN side events.

Take Action

During the #16Days of Activism (and beyond!) there are many simple ways you can take action to help shine a light on the plight of widows of all ages.


Heather Rainey WPD Internt

Heather Rainey is a third year Politics student at The University of Edinburgh and is a researcher for Lawyers Without Borders. She is an intern with WPD and has had an interest in women’s rights for as long as she can remember.
This article is reproduced and adapted from an article that Heather wrote for The University of Edinburgh Feminist Society Blog.

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