CHARTER FOR THE RIGHTS OF WIDOWS1
A Draft Protocol for adaptation to specific country, legal, social, cultural and economic situations.
Discrimination against and abuse of widows, of all ages, occurs across a wide spectrum of cultures, religions, ethnic groups, regions, irrespective of the economic or education status of the women subject to this oppression.
Attitudes to and treatment of widows vary from relatively mild indifference and social exclusion (prevalent in some developed countries of the West) to extreme mental, physical and sexual torture, and even to murder. In Tanzania, a HelpAged study found that in one year as many as 400 older women, mostly widows, were accused of being witches and murdered or stoned to death. In several South Asian communities the vernacular words used for widows mean witch, sorceress, prostitute, whore. Across ethnic groups widows are systematically and routinely vilified, regarded as the real cause of their husbands’ deaths and perceived as ill omens and bringers of bad luck.
With regard to legal rights, whether enshrined in international law, in national constitutions or domestic laws, widows are often beyond the reach of modern statutes and, for various reasons, maybe unable to access the modern justice system in their countries. In countries where religious and customary systems of law exist in parallel with modern statutory law, widows’ lives are mainly determined by interpretations, made by leaders of their local communities, of the religious or customary systems. Thus, widows are often barred from inheriting from their dead husband’s estate; may be evicted from the family home; lose custody of their children to the male relatives of their deceased spouse. They may be unable to own or dispose of land, and be subjected to horrific, degrading and life-threatening traditional practices. This lack of rights leaves the majority of widows in extreme poverty and destitution. Widows and their children are among the poorest of the poor.
In spite of the many ratifications to the CEDAW, the consensus of the Beijing Platform for Action, widespread support for the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence to Women, and endorsement by governments of the UNSCR 1325, widows continue to be excluded from the progress made in raising the status of millions of the world’s women.
Not only are they denied their basic human rights, civil, political, social and economic, but their crucial roles in society, in development, in peace building, and as sole supporters of their families have not been recognised. There is a dearth of statistical data and situational analysis of their day-to-day struggles to survive. Governments should explore alternative methods of collecting such information, such as participatory poverty and demographic assessment studies involving the widows’ groups themselves through Mapping and Profiling projects.
But change is on the way, as widows begin to organise themselves to be agents of change, lobby for legal reforms, are represented in decision-making, and begin to be counted and heard.
The Charter for WIDOWS’ RIGHTS demands the elimination of all discrimination against widows, both within the family and in community and public life. The abuse of widows can in no circumstances be justified on the grounds of “custom” by families or traditional and religious authorities. As Nafis Sadik once said, famously, “no custom or religion can ever justify the oppression of women”. We add, nor of WIDOWS.
The plight of widows of war often worsens in the aftermath of conflict, and SCR 1325 has failed to address, in any significant way (with a few unique exceptions) either their immediate or long-term needs. But the months and years after violence and conflict have died down or been brought to an end and the numbers of widows and wives of the missing will have increased unprecedentedly, provide the opportune moment for widows to organise themselves and ensure, for example, that in the drafting of new constitutions, laws and administrative reforms, widows’ issues are mainstreamed and their rights guaranteed.
This Draft draws on all the Human Rights Conventions and Charters, and particularly on the CEDAW and the Beijing Platform. It also accommodates conclusions of international resolutions and declarations such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The articles below describe acts and attitudes which in most countries are already proscribed under the general principles of international laws ratified by governments. Here they are spelt out specifically.
It is hoped it will be a useful lobbying tool for widows’ groups, women’s organisations, and inform the relevant Ministries (Women, Justice, Health etc.) of the principle issues.
THE WIDOWS’ CHARTER
• Noting that all women are equal before the law and that the human rights of women are inalienable, universal and non-transferable.
• Noting that in many countries widows suffer from low status, discrimination, violence and lack of legal rights.
• Noting that in many communities widows are stereotyped as evil, bringing bad luck, and that social attitudes to widowhood obstruct them from fully participating in civil society.
• Noting that in spite of international and domestic laws guaranteeing equality in inheritance, land ownership, and criminalising violence to women widows are often banned from inheriting, evicted from their homes, deprived of all their property, and left in destitution.
• Noting that widows are often victims of degrading and life-threatening traditional practices in the context of funeral and burial practices.|
• Noting that there is no special reference to discrimination and abuse of widows in the beijing platform for action.
• Noting that widows are key social and economic players in development.
• Reaffirming the important role that widows do and may play in the resolution and prevention of conflicts.
• Expressing concern that the impact of this treatment of widows has severe and negative implications for the whole of society. In particular because the poverty of widows deprives their chldren of their human rights to shelter, food, education and the rights of the child.
• Recognising the urgent need to mainstream a widows’ perspective in all policy developments and decisions.
• Reaffirming the need to implement fully all international human rights and humanitarian law that protects the rights of women and girls, irrespective of their age or marital status, during and after confict as well as in times of peace.
• Requires all governments to use all measures possible to eliminate this discrimination, and to work with widows’ groups to assess their numbers and their situation so as to develop policies and laws to alleviate their isolation and poverty, and acknowledge their valuable social capital.
a) Widows shall enjoy equality with all women and men, irrespective of their age or marital status.
b) Any treatment of a widow which differs from the treatment, legally, socially, economically, of a widower shall be deemed to be discriminatory and therefore illegal.
c) Widows shall not be discriminated against, in word or deed. either in family and private life, or in community and public life.
d) The State is guilty, by omission, of breach of the law, if it implicitly condones discrimination and abuse of the widow by non-state actors, such as family members.
a) Widows shall have the right to inherit from their husband’s estate, whether or not the deceased spouse left a will.
b) Widows may not be disinherited
c) Widows may not be “inherited” as wives or concubines to their husband’s brother, nor forcibly placed in a “levirate” relationship, nor forcibly made pregnant by a relative in order to continue producing children in her dead husband’s name.
d) A widow has the right to remarry
e) A widow must be free to marry someone of her own choice
f) Polygamy and temporary marriage is forbidden.
g) “Honour Killings” are murder
h) Daughters shall inherit equally with sons
i) “Property-Grabbing” and “chasing-off” are criminal offences, punishable as the most serious category of crime
j) Anyone who attempts or manages to deprive a widow of any of her property, take custody of her children, without an order of a judge or magistrate shall be guilt of the most serious category of crime
k) Anyone, whether a relative or a stranger, who seeks or manages to gain control of the dead husband’s bank account, insurance policy, accident compensation claims, without the order of the Court is guilty of the most serious category of crime
l) Free Legal Aid shall be given to widows in all inheritance, property and personal status disputes
a) Anyone who arranges or coerces a widow to participate in harmful traditional practices in the context of funeral and burial rites shall be guilty of the most serious category of crime ( for example: ritual cleansing through sex; scarification; isolation; restrictions on diet and dress endangering mental and physical health)
b) Anyone who has sexual relations with a widow in the context of funeral and burial rites shall be guilt of Rape, and subject to the maximum penalty.
c) Anyone who forcibly deprives the widow of custody of her children shall be guilty of a serious offence
d) Anyone who physically, mentally or sexually abuses a widow is guilty of the most serious category of crime
e) Anyone who verbally abuses a widow by calling her insulting names shall be guilty of an offence.
Any restrictions on a widow’s mobility, even where based on “custom” which continues after the 14th day after the death of the spouse are unlawful and anyone responsible for restraining the widow is guilty of a criminal offence
a) Any restrictions, due to her marital status, on a widow’s freedom to access social, health and education services are unlawful
b) Any restrictions concerning domicile, diet, clothing, life-style imposed on a widow against a will are unlawful
c) All restrictions on widows’ accessing health care, including family planning services, are unlawful.
d) Any restriction on a widow’s right to citizenship, a passport and freedom to travel is unlawful.
All appropriate measures shall be taken to eliminate discrimination against widows in the field of employment, in particular:
a) The right to the same employment opportunities and remuneration as other men and women
b) It is an offence under the Employment Acts for anyone to dismiss a woman from her employment because she has become a widow and must take some reasonable time off work for the funeral rites is guilty of an offence
c) It is an offence to refuse to employ a widow because she is wearing mourning clothes
d) Suitable child-care and elderly care support shall be provided to widows who work outside the home.
a) The term “violence against women” includes any act of gender-based violence against a widow that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to her, including threats of such acts, coercion, or deprivation of liberty.
b) No widow-abuse may be justified by citing custom, tradition or religion.
c) All appropriate measures shall be taken, through, for example public education and training of opinion leaders, to change the negative stereotyping of widows
d) No relative shall detain a widow in his or her household as an unpaid domestic worker without registering before the court and being subject to regular monitoring and inspection by the social services.
e) All appropriate measures shall be taken to protect widows and their children from sexual exploitation, prostitution and trafficking of women and girls.
f) It is no defence to this law that the widow consented to be victim of the alleged violence.
a) All appropriate measures shall be taken to ensure that those dependent on widows – children, other orphans, the old, sick and frail people – are identified that gaps in assistance are filled.
b) Where appropriate, widows should receive financial support to balance opportunity costs in sending children to school.
c) Appropriate measures shall be taken to eliminate discrimination against widows in areas of economic and civil life. In particular
– (i)The right to a pension and family benefits
– (ii) Elimination of delaying bureaucratic barriers to widows accessing pensions
– (iii)Elimination of corruption in the dispensing of pensions to widows
– (iv)Special measures to assist illiterate widows access their economic and legal rights
d) Widows’ children should have priority in assessment for education scholarships.
WIDOWS OF CONFLICT AND POST CONFLICT
a) Recalling SCR Resolution 1325, and recognising the huge increase in the numbers of widows and wives of the missing as a consequence of armed conflict
b) Recognising that many widows of war have also been victims of rape and sexual violence
c) Recognising also the extreme vulnerability of widows and daughters of widows in the instability of societies in the aftermath of war
d) Noting the unique role widows play as custodians of the social fabric of communities
e) Noting also widows’ unique roles as peace builders and peace makers, through their ability to link hands with widows across ethnic, religious and national divides
f) Recognising that years after Peace Accords are signed widows of war continue to struggle to survive in refugee and IDP camps and are unable to return to their original homes
g) Concerned with the problems arising for wives of the “missing”, unable to rebuild their lives because of uncertainty about their status
h) Recognising the particular individual security issues for women without male protectors
i) Noting the alarming rise in domestic violence as well as sexual violence in the community in the post conflict situation
j) Expressing concern at the vulnerability of widows and their children to rape, forced prostitution and trafficking by criminals, occupying troops, so-called peace-keeper forces
k) Noting the many numbers of orphans, sick, old, wounded and traumatised people are dependent on widows for their survival
CALLS all actors involved in negotiating and implementing peace agreements to address the special needs of widows and wives of the missing, as required by SCR 1325, and ensure the protection of and respect for their human rights.
CALLS on all actors to ensure that widows’ are represented in these negotiations so that their particular concerns, for example:
(i) Rights of safe return of displaced widows to former homes
(ii) Repair and Rebuilding of homesteads
(iii) Land allocation and ownership
(iv) Clarification of the legal rights and social needs of the wives of “the missing”
(v) Personal Status guarantees in Constitution and Law Reform
(vi) Protection of widow witnesses at national and international
courts and tribunals before, during and after trials
(vi) Counselling and health care for victims of sexual abuse and rape
(vii) Addressing needs of refugees and IDPs, and widow asylum seekers.
Government will support the establishment of a National Federation of WIDOWS, with clusters and sub-groups in every town and sets of villages so that information on the needs of widows is available and can inform policy making at the national and local level.
a) All appropriate measures shall be taken to support widows organising themselves into self-help and empowerment groups
b) These groups shall be acknowledged as being decisive components of civil society, to be involved as participants in the development of social, economic policies affecting their situation.
c) Support shall be given to the establishment of a National Federation of Widows’ Groups with an advisory status to government.
d) Widows’ shelters and legal aid centres for widows shall be established.
e) Statistic and Data shall be collected and a situational analysis undertaken to ascertain the true numbers, needs and roles of widows in society.
f) In recognition of the gap in knowledge, Governments will explore alternative methods of collecting such information, such as participatory poverty and demographic assessment studies involving the widows’ groups themselves.
a) Governments shall address the situation of widows in their work programmes to achieve the Millennium Development Goals
b) Governments shall bear in mind the special situation of widows when identifying measures to implement the CEDAW, the BPFA, the Declaration Eliminating Violence against Women, the Convention against Torture, SCR Resolution 1325 and all other human rights conventions and charters.
c) All human rights training of all actors in the justice system, community and opinion leaders, shall incorporate widows’ rights law
d) Governments shall consult with widows’ organisations when reporting to the human rights committees on their implementation of the ratified charters and agreed declarations and programmes.
A) List of International, Regional, National and Local Organisations
B) List of Widows’ Self-Help and Lobbying Groups for networking and sharing Best Practice
a) Using the Human Rights Machinery.
b) CEDAW; BPFA; 1325. MDGs.
c) Using the Optional Protocol
d) Preparing Shadow Reports
e) UN Special Rapporteurs
f) Organising Widows to be Agents of Change
g) Mapping and Profiling Project Description for Widows’ Groups.
Copyright Widows for Peace Through Democracy, February 2017.