Widows in Nepal 2021
Photo © WHR Nepal

Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) joined our partners for International Widows Day on 23 June 2021.

Alice Lees of WPD reports:

A ‘virtual’ commemorative event was hosted at the Guild for Service India by the South Asian Network for Widows’ Empowerment in Development (SANWED), in collaboration with UN Women on 23 June 2021 to mark the occasion of International Widows Day.

This was a webinar focused on the impact of COVID-19 and its subsequent lockdowns on widows, particularly in South Asia.

According to World Bank figures, forty-nine million more people globally will be put into poverty by Covid, with 12 million in India. Meera Khanna of India, Executive Vice President of the Guild for Service, stressed the urgent need for data on households headed by widows during the pandemic – experiencing enhanced poverty with some widows in South Asia left homeless on one month’s salary and many walking hundreds of miles during lockdown as there were no trains or buses. Widows were sent back from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal with no food or income and some thrown out of marital homes when unjustly considered to be at risk of carrying the virus. Some women now spend twice the time doing care-giving work and both women and children are at greater risk of exploitation. Civil society in India has ‘stepped up’ and Global Fund for Widows is helping women to become employers themselves.

Susan Ferguson, Country Representative, UN Women, Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives & Sri Lanka explained that, although a vulnerable group, widows could also be a powerful voice for change, with government partners, CSOs and civil society members internationally present at the meeting. With 1 in 10 of an estimated 258 million widows around the world living in extreme poverty, widows’ needs must be put at the centre of socioeconomic development and UN Women UNDP has recently launched a gender data tracker. Widows need a fair share of resources to release them from the poverty trap and we must provide them with easy access to identity proof and ration cards; work for effective implementation of the rule of law, and support them in achieving financial independence.

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers of Global Fund for Widows (GFW) in her special address said they had coined the phrase ‘Covid-19 the widow-making machine’, as the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to create 3.5 million widows. GFW focuses on providing financial inclusion for widows, paving the way for financial stability and for potential engagement in public life. They have created 400 chicken farms, enabling widows to feed their families, and their action plan for the next 5 years includes protections for widows, especially in the light of Covid-19. GFW calls on the UN Secretary General to act upon a widows’ agenda.

Dr. Ferdous Ara Begum, Member of the Board of Trustees, HelpAge International, Council Member, The International Institute on Ageing (UN-Malta) Satellite Centre for SAARC Countries and former member of the UN CEDAW committee, reported from Bangladesh in a complete lockdown situation, with millions of widows having lost their livelihoods; women and girls without adequate access to healthcare services, and older women facing very serious neglect. There had been a huge increase in incidence of child marriage, with children vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitation, and widows in Bangladesh without access to banks. The government has provided low-cost housing, with social protection for older persons also expanded, but Ferdous calls for ending gender pay gaps; access to justice and legal protection; amending relevant laws; healthcare services for widows available in the pandemic; ending child marriage in Bangladesh and implementation of articles of the CEDAW convention, with also protection from the violence of the pandemic for affected children.

Mahbouba Seraj, Chair of Afghan Women’s Network, said Afghanistan is in the middle of a brutal war and is itself a widow-making machine, with civilians killed as well as soldiers and women treated in a shocking manner. Although, according to available official ‘data’ and statistics, Afghanistan has about half a million widows, according to Mahbouba there are reportedly far more. ‘Any statistic from Afghanistan needs to be multiplied by ten’. Afghanistan is in a second Covid wave, with families losing up to five members a week to COVID-19 and a few hospitals but no oxygen and no help. In the first wave men who lost jobs were given a sanitiser and sack of food, but nothing done for widows in Kabul and in some parts women are married off and girls are running away to avoid this. Despite work by UN Women and Human Rights Watch, no one has yet provided a solution – and Mahbouba doubts whether anyone has one.

For Mathew Cherian, Chair at CARE India, and Global Ambassador for Ageing in India, ‘the real face of poverty is the elderly face of a widow’. He explained how the disastrous situation in the country has been accentuated by the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Supreme Court of India acknowledges the sacred ‘Right to Life’ and ‘Right to Health’, elderly women and widows still lack basic human rights and a pension and access to long-term care. A recent Help-Age report found present-day widows are unable to access Covid vaccines and many in India and South Asia facing hunger, with some receiving COVID vaccines only after 6 months. Matthew called for ‘doorstep provision of vaccines…. not vaccines on camps’ as a matter of urgency.

Lily Thapa, Founder of Nepal’s Women for Human Rights single women group (WHR), said that within six months 8,000 people there had died and 4,000 become widows, with little access to vaccines. Her country had been in lockdown for nearly a year, during which WHR had mobilised widows’ groups countrywide and fed over 3,000 families a day. Some widows were also helping in the hospitals – being very poor but a great resource with respect to ‘human capital’. Many widows had to leave jobs in Nepal and a huge number have resorted to sending their children to India to in a desperate search for work. Lily, working with a network of two million, finds women often don’t have vital documents and are being left behind and excluded as they have no access to digital resources. She has mobilised her teams and they are working tirelessly, looking at how to increase the widows’ resilience. A key priority for WHR has been helping their widows to face mental trauma. During lockdown 75% [of Women for Human Rights or WHR widows] also experienced violence and 122 individuals reported rape. Although government health services are investing, work is slow and Nepal is an exceptionally poor country. Lily called on the international community for support.

From Pakistan, Muneezeh Khan, Research Specialist at the Aurat Foundation reported hardly any data available in Pakistan on the impact of Covid on widows. Those the Foundation surveyed felt totally isolated and did not feel remarriage was a good option for them. Widows in Pakistan were also in debt, having taken out loans to face the pandemic, and felt mentally and emotionally let down by the lack of government assistance. As well as giving food rations and sewing machines for support, Aurat Foundation tries to mobilise support groups to combat the mental isolation. The pandemic has also compounded issues regarding class status and ethnic and regional diversity and Muneezeh called out for young widows in particular to be treated with respect.

As a concluding remark, Masuma Hasan (President of the Aurat Foundation) noted that the SANWED network have worked tirelessly but Covid-19 has been a real setback for our work with widows.

A second important International Widows Day event took place virtually at the House of Lords in the afternoon. International Widows Day was first launched back in 2005 by The Loomba Foundation. Since 2011, the United Nations has observed 23rd June as International Widows Day to highlight and combat discrimination and injustice suffered by widows worldwide. This year, Lord Raj Loomba cited the UN Secretary General António Guterres, highlighting the bleak situation already faced by widows worldwide and now hugely exacerbated by Covid 19:

“For many widows, losing their husband also means losing their identity, land rights, property, income, and possibly their children. Their physical safety is at greater risk, just when they may be suffering some serious emotional trauma”.

Lord Raj Loomba said the mental health of widows has worsened in the COVID pandemic. Cherie, of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, spoke of over two decades of lobbying by the Loomba Foundation to stop the degrading and devastating rituals to which widows are subjected; beginning in India before it became clear that widowhood discrimination is endemic worldwide. This situation has only been made bleaker by the global COVID-19 crisis. The original International Widows Day included a groundbreaking UN meeting attended by the international community – it was chaired by Ban-Ki Moon and garnered support from Yoko Ono, one of the world’s best-known widows. The poor are always hit hardest when disaster strikes, and Loomba Foundation works to change cultures through hearts and minds. Cherie introduced speakers from India, the US. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Nepal.

Carolyn Moor, Founder and President of Modern Widows Club and herself a widow – as well as being one of WPD’s own partners – observed that, when society asks whether ‘widows matter’, one is really made to think. The Modern Widows Club website is now translated into 39 different languages and is a springboard for exposing the important work we are all doing for widows, with 50,00 followers and the launch to President Biden of the ‘Petition to Advance the Rights of Widows in the United States and Worldwide’.

Roseline Orwa, Founder and Director of Rona Foundation and Rona Orphans and Widows Centre, came ‘with a heavy heart’, as both her own rural village and her country Kenya are ravaged by the Covid pandemic, with her friend aged 72 now lost to COVID-19. Roseline herself had survived AIDS, and widow cleansing and saw this International Widows Day ‘celebration’ as cosmetic, as days such as the United Nations International Day for Widows create awareness and there is a lot of talk, however in Kenya the stark reality is that HTPs (Harmful Traditional Practices) have not yet been outlawed and widow funds not created. Roseline says it is not just ‘data’ we need, but social capital and action, and commended Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) for partnering to give widows a great platform, with the fantastic advocacy tools of the Widows Charter and the Dossier ‘Widows Speak Out, Abuse and Discrimination Resilience and Agency’.

Charles Ocici, Executive Director of Enterprise Uganda, explained that a widow on the death of her partner is unwillingly thrown into a position of leadership, a bitter experience in Uganda with widows blamed for the death of a husband and criticised for wasting the resources a husband left behind. Cultural ‘mindset’ training can be a leveller if well delivered, as through entrepreneurship widows can become resilient, create businesses and become leaders.

Ms. Rose William Sarwatt, Executive Director of Tanzania Widows Association, began coordinating work to empower widows in her community in 2013-2014. International Widows Day has had a powerful and positive influence and now creates a platform in Tanzania for widows’ voices, with Tanzania Widows Association creating awareness of widows’ needs and rights with governments and stakeholders. Widows in Tanzania can now access free health services.

The Nigerian work with widows of Dr Eleanor Nwadinobi, President of the Medical Women’s International Association and founding Co-Chair of Every Woman Treaty, includes advocating against ‘levirate’- an appalling practice where widows are passed on to the next available male. Since Covid 19 she has seen concerning increased rates of child marriage and child widowhood, with a recent report suggesting 4 million more girls are now at risk of child marriage. In an alarming development in the context of conflict men are marrying widows for their food cards and widows are now seen as posing the additional threat in Nigeria of taking husbands. Eleanor worked together with Margaret Owen of WPD for many years, and commended Margaret Owen, our WPD Founder, as a lifelong and dedicated advocate for widows’ concerns.

Lily Thapa, whose work in Nepal is described above, also attended this second webinar and spoke warmly about how International Widows Day has been invaluable to her organisation for advocating for Widows Rights in South Asia and enabling widows’ voices to be heard across a broader international platform. WHR had been able to garner international support to change various discriminatory laws – so important for the widows’ children as well – but now, in Nepal people, are dying due to lack of access to Covid vaccines.

In a final Q&A session with Raj Loomba and Cherie Blair, Cherie acknowledged that ‘unspeakable atrocities’ are still happening around the world and impacting on widows – and there is still so much to be done.

In the special thanks closing the event, Margaret Owen was commended for her tireless advocacy work to call for a voice for widows and for international attention to be given to widows’ rights over the years.

Alice Lees 30.06.2021

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