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