Never before in human history has the world been host to so many widows and wives of the missing”, as a consequences of armed conflict, the AIDS pandemic, the increased life-expectancy of women over men, and the fact of age differences between the marriage partners, meaning that young women –even girl children –are often married to far older men.
We need to dispel the myth that most widows are elderly women, looked after by their families. Many millions of widows are young mothers, even still children. And the majority are not only not looked after by their relatives, but on the contrary, persecuted, abused and oppressed by them.
In many developing countries – and it is in these that the majority of conflicts are occurring – widowhood is a “social death”. Widows are the lowest of the low, and in patriarchal societies, they are – notwithstanding the enactment of modern statutes to protect their rights in compliance with international laws such as the CEDAW – subject to all sorts of abuses and discrimination, and leaving them not only impoverished but often homeless and unsupported. Rights to inheritance, land and property ownership, custody of children, right to remarry or be protected from a forced marriage (widow-inheritance) are just some of the injustices millions of widows suffer. They may be labelled and persecuted as witches. Mourning and Burial Rites are often degrading, harmful and even life-threatening traditional practices. For example, “ritual cleansing”, where the widow is expected to have sex with designated male relatives at a funeral occasion. Such a rite is not only a rape, but life-threatening in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Other rites and customs are equally abusive and destructive of a widow’s dignity and self-respect. Lack of inheritance rights often result in widows being evicted from their homesteads, (if not forced into marriage or a levirate arrangement with a husband’s brother or cousin), and deprived of all their belongings.
Yet it is these women who are the sole providers and raisers of children, alone responsible for their shelter, food, education and welfare. Not only are they the sole carers of the next young generation, but they may also find themselves responsible for older relatives, the sick, the wounded, the frail.
However, it is in countries in conflict and post-conflict situations that the plight of widows becomes the most severe. One has only to consider what happened in Rwanda during the genocide, and what is happening now in the Congo to understand that widows and their daughters in the violence of the war and its aftermath are also most at risk to gender based violence (GBV), rape, sexual mutilation, forced prostitution, and exploitation by pimps and traffickers.
However, in spite of their huge and growing numbers – there are rarely any official and reliable statistics on this gender issue – but we talk of over 50% of women in Eastern Congo being widows; 3 million in Iraq; over 70,000 in Kabul, Afghanistan. These women, many illiterate, unable to earn a living, homeless, and vulnerable to violence, alone have the heavy responsibility for caring and raising the children. Their poverty, depriving their children of education and future employment, affects the whole of society, and as poverty breeds conflict, frustrates all other efforts to achieve peaceful solutions to ongoing conflicts.
WIDOWHOOD is the most neglected of all gender human rights issues today. Help us to ensure that this issue is not ignored. It matters, for justice, for equality, and for peace.
The majority of the 37,000 street children who beg on the streets of Afghan cities are children of widows. The “coping strategies” of widows struggling to survive their poverty and the stigma of their widowhood status always include the withdrawal of children from school; dependency on child labour; giving or selling a girl child away to an early marriage; prostitution. And when all these and other strategies fail, widows commit suicides. (This is what is happening today in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq).
WPD (Widows for Peace through Democracy) has been working on this issue for many years, since before the Beijing 4th Women’s Conference, and with its partner organisations has regularly hosted Round Tables at the UN CSW. It is currently in dialogue with the UN OSAGI (Office of the Gender Adviser to the UN S-G) on the feasibility of the UN commissioning a Special Report on Widowhood in Conflict, and the holding of international conferences in South Asia and Africa so as to gather better information and data on the vital roles as well as the basic needs of widows and wives of the missing in conflict afflicted communities.