‘WIDOWS SPEAK OUT: Abuse and Discrimination, Resilience and Agency’ ~ Ground-breaking report launched at Widows for Peace through Democracy’s CSW65 event on March 17 2021

On 17 March 2021 Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) was one of the civil society organisations selected to host an event at the ‘virtual’ 65th annual session of the United Nations Committee on the Status of Women (CSW65). As well as publicly launching our ground-breaking Dossier, WIDOWS SPEAK OUT: Abuse and Discrimination, Resilience and Agency, we were honoured to be joined by distinguished speakers from the United Nations as well as the authors of and contributors to our Dossier – joining us live on our Zoom platform from Iraq, Kashmir, Kenya, Nepal, New York and the UK, along with a registered worldwide audience of over eighty and co-hosting by Susan O’Malley, our WPD representative at the United Nations.

Bandana Rana – CEDAW

Our event’s inspiring moderator Julie Ward, former MEP and Member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, began with a warm welcome to Ms. Bandana Rana, previous Vice-Chair and current member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Committee (CEDAW).

Bandana Rana

Bandana, from Nepal, congratulated WPD on the launch of our Dossier – previously circulated for the CEDAW Committee’s consideration, and gave a detailed and illuminating explanation of how the Dossier’s research findings will be used in CEDAW’s crucial work, as well as commending WPD’s ‘passionate work in this area’.

As well as explaining how the Dossier’s evidence would be invaluable in enhancing CEDAW’s formal procedures and policies, including Constructive Dialogue with State parties and drafting concrete Recommendations, Bandana highlighted the Dossier and its case studies’ strengths in focusing on vital regional issues for widows, including linking child marriage and widowhood with its impacts in the South Asian region; bringing to surface the case studies of African countries in the context of the HIV AIDS pandemic and the associated cycle of deprivation of their inheritance; and giving an example of the possibilities of modifying social and cultural attitudes.

Bandana also observed how these aspects of the Dossier add to the analytical and intervention tools enabling navigation through the Covid 19 pandemic, as well as emphasising that widows’ rights are not just limited to basic sustenance but must also include protection from the systemic barriers of State machinery that lead to indirect discrimination. In conclusion, Bandana showed how the Dossier’s case examples, such as that of illiterate Indian ‘Tiger Widow’ Aaoka, could be used in CEDAW’s work; advising that the Dossier adds value to the work of CEDAW in the ‘intensified fight against patriarchy and vestiges of harmful religious practices’ and declaring that: “We are with you in this crusade!”

Alice Lees Presents PowerPoint Summary of Dossier

Following Bandana’s hugely appreciated outline of a clear path forward together for championing widows’ human rights, Alice Lees, Widows for Peace through Democracy Consultant and researcher and co-author of the Dossier, presented an additional WPD resource – our illustrated PowerPoint talk summarising the Dossier.
Available to download here, this presentation has a first ‘cover’ slide open for customizing for one’s own organisation and can be used by all advocating for widows’ rights to showcase and support the dissemination of the Dossier, or on its own to raise awareness of widow discrimination and abuse. Julie Ward advised that the Dossier is an ongoing project, in that further widow testimonies can be added to subsequent editions.

Roseline Orwa – Rona Foundation, Kenya

Next followed a very powerful presentation by Roseline Orwa, Founder and Director at Rona Foundation Kenya,on ‘Combating Stigma: Modifying social and cultural attitudes to widowhood and eliminating harmful traditional practices (HTPs) in Kenya’.
Describing the horrifying experiences of both herself as a widow and that of the over 8,000 Kenyan rural widows with whom she works, Roseline highlighted the lack of awareness among widows that their discriminatory treatment is serious abuse, and that the harmful practice of widow ‘sexual cleansing’ is not only unspoken of, but also a major conveyer of HIV, AIDS and now Covid -19. She advised that policies on interventions to eliminate such HTPs must take into account both the age of the widow and the method of death, as a widow may be accused of killing a husband.
Roseline’s Rona Foundation is a community giving traumatised widows a safe space to heal from their grief and the associated ‘three Ss of Stigma, Shame and Silence’. She said research by partner Modern Widows Club showed that most widows’ organisations collapse after seven years, but work by Widows for Peace through Democracy has enabled them to amplify their voices and access the international platform. We must together work sensitively with these powerful stories of sexual cleansing -in effect gang rape with no consent or bodily autonomy – to change the narrative for the next generation, but it takes much work and understanding to outlaw and modify widow cultural practices.

Shaista Safi – Widows and Half Widows in Kashmir

Shaista Safi, Kashmiri Human Rights activist speaking live from Kashmir on ‘Widows and half widows in Kashmir – poverty, fear, and impunity from prosecution for sexual violence in conflict’, began by thanking Julie Ward for her work in visiting and representing the people of Kashmir, and Margaret Owen and Alice Lees for highlighting the desperate plight of the ‘half-widows’ of Kashmir in the WPD Dossier.
Shaista passionately described living in Kashmir under Indian military occupation as being in ‘the world’s largest open air prison’, with frequent ‘forced disappearance’ as well as conflict and half -widows unable to discover whether husbands were alive or dead, so unable to marry again under Islamic law or move on with their lives. Some of Shaista’s testimony was obscured by the interruption of Kashmir’s internet that occurs so frequently, but she concluded that Kashmir needs be recognised as a disputed territory if the plight of women, widows and half widows is to improve.

Regina Paulose – The Common Good Foundation – Rohingya Widows

In a context of Myanmar’s recent military coup, Julie Ward introduced Regina Paulose, Executive Director of The Common Good Foundation, saying that the Rohingya testimonies in our Dossier are some of the most distressing Julie has encountered.
Speaking on ‘Rohingya widows in a context of conflict, religious and ethnic discrimination and lack of legal documentation’, Regina saw the international community as very focused on the refugee Rohingya community in Bangladesh, but often neglecting the Rohingyas still in Burma (Myanmar). Despite some semblance of democracy emerging in 2012, the Rohingya since the 1960s have always been a target of making Myanmar an ‘all Buddhist’ nation.
The Rohingya, indigenous people of Myanmar’s Arakan region, do not fit this narrative and are seen as foreigners, so lack citizen identity papers and face restrictions on marriage, movement, birth, food, and access to medical care or education, with many suffering acute malnutrition and drawn into human trafficking. Many are now in internal displacement camps without the promised access to education. For the Rohingya the genocidal purge of 2017 is an ongoing genocide, with all the specific challenges faced by widows but a lack of international access to them, and an Internet continually shutdown.

The second group of Rohingya are the refugee communities around the world in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and other countries including Kashmir. In Bangladesh, origin of several of the Dossier testimonies sent by ARNO (Arakan Rohingya National Organisation), the widows are part of a group of women and children who are experiencing not only the level of violence experienced when forced to flee from home, but also trauma from both the 1992 purge and the 2017 genocide, with insufficient mental health counselling and lack of identity documentation. Attempts have been made to create ‘safe spaces’ for them as in the camps they are still vulnerable to human trafficking and forced child marriages, especially girls.
The media rarely mentions widows in conversations about the Rohingya returning home, but these widows will be integral to community rebuilding and can be helped to be resilient and move forward on returning to their native land. Regina observed that nothing further said could be more powerful than the widows’ testimonies in the Dossier, but we need to hear directly from them, as experts on the issues, by finding resources to bring them more connectivity. It is fortunate we have leaders like Roseline speaking for the widows and Widows for Peace is doing a great job creating synergies. Finally, Regina mentioned a recent report that China was using the term ‘left over women’ for women not married when over twenty seven – so how are they treating widows? The kind of issue we need to investigate in order to continue moving forward.

Margaret Owen OBE, Founder and President of Widows for Peace through Democracy

Julie welcomed distinguished WPD Founder and President, Margaret Owen OBE, whose impassioned presentation can be watched here. Margaret reported on the ‘absolute scandal’ that the latest draft CSW Agreed Conclusions contains no mention of widows, even in the context of Women, Peace and Security (WPS), and described how, during conflicts decided by men in power, men and boys are killed, women raped and put into sexual slavery, and innocent widows of jihadist fighters remain in limbo in refugee camps. Margaret had advised our ambassador at the UK mission in the UN of this situation, having advocated on this issue since hosting the very first international workshop on widows at the 1995 Beijing conference, and she thanked WPD’s worldwide partners for bringing to international attention the huge numbers of half widows. We must recognise that widows are of all ages, including children, and that their marginalisation is a key driver of taking girls out of school into forced early child marriage and FGM; recruitment of their sons as boy soldiers and into crime, and unaccompanied boy migrants trying to find education and jobs to support their families. COVID-19, killing far more men than women, creates even more widows who in lockdown are suffering even more abuse and violence, with their few avenues to earn money for food cut off.
Margaret acknowledged Alice’s extensive work in compiling the Dossier and bringing everyone to this event and praised all present for producing the evidence needed to move forward. She also paid tribute to the work of Lily Thapa, Founder and Strategic Advisor of Women for Human Rights Single Women Group (WHR), who was to present here on ‘Widows and best practice: How Women for Human Rights have influenced government practice and combatted Covid in Nepal’, but was unable to attend. Margaret emphasized that widows should not be seen exclusively as victims but as having key social and economic roles and praised Roseline and Lily as role models in bravely removing the ‘blanket of invisibility and secrecy’ from the violence and restriction of traditional mourning and burial rites in Africa and South Asia.

Dr Maha Alsakban – Women’s Human Rights Centre (WHRC), Iraq

Dr Maha Alsakban of the Women’s Human Rights Centre (WHRC) in Iraq, presenting on ‘Half Widows and enforced disappearance in Iraq’, said widows are marginalised globally, but particularly in Iraq, where despite government promises to support them nothing has materialised.
Currently nearly all Iraq’s camps for IDPs, and now even some in Kurdistan, have been forcibly closed at short notice, with incorrect government claims that widows wanted to go back voluntarily. Some children remain in the camps because they are unwanted, particularly in closed communities like the Yazidis, by families who think they are future terrorists because their families were affiliated with Daesh. Tragically, many women who have returned are thus deprived of their children, and the majority, widows or half widows whose men were either killed, jailed or missing, have returned to find their homes in ruins and their communities hostile and threatening towards them, with Iraqi officials saying they are unable to provide protection. In addition, married teenagers or young girls are not allowed to go to ‘morning’ school (free government school), but must go to ‘evening’ or private school and are not allowed to mix with other girls. Widows’ families also have no help with reconciliation, compensation, psychological rehabilitation or social cohesion; attributed by Iraq’s government to a financial crisis.

Silja Rajander – UN Women

Our final speaker Silja Rajander, Inter-Agency Coordination Specialist, UN Women, focused on data and analysis and her support to UN country teams to advance gender mainstreaming, with a focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. The 2000 UN Division for Advancement of Women produced a report on widows, noting their absence in reports on poverty and from the statistics of many developing countries. The SDGs aim at reaching those furthest behind first, but these are often uncounted and for the goal on gender equality less than four out of 10 countries have compatible data, with particular gaps in disaggregated data and analysis. Addressing data gaps requires work on the ground at country level and the UN works to strengthen member data capacity.
Census data shows that elderly widows face higher rates of poverty male counterparts, and impact assessments, including civil society information, have demonstrated the discrimination and specific vulnerabilities faced by widows during and after armed conflicts. Data analysis leads to interventions such as social assistance schemes, which need expanding, and it is important that widow organisations’ data is included, including bringing the lived experiences of widows in the public realm, as has been demonstrated by today`s event and the powerful analysis of WPD’s Dossier.
COVID-19 has increased the number of widows and UN Women’s gender analysis with UNDP revealed the burden of unpaid care work. All country teams are expected to update their UN common country analysis. Innovative data collection methods in collaboration with civil society include a ‘rapid gender assessment’ from Cox’s Bazaar, referencing the dire effects of the death of male heads of households on especially widows, and in Nepal the UN has supported the government to re purpose social protection protection schemes, providing additional funding Silja concluded that we can only do things differently when we collaborate and engage with each other to bring about inclusive, resilient and gender just societies.

Rounding up

Our Q&A session was very brief due to limited Zoom platform time. Christine Crowstaff, Social Media volunteer for WPD, spoke on behalf of her colleagues from countries including South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda who were unable to join due to insufficient CSW platform capacity.
Margaret Owen advised that she had been the Consultant writing the 2000 report quoted by Silja Rajander, twenty-one years ago, and requested that Silja should encourage UN women to back addition of the Africa group proposals to the current CSW draft Statement.
Dr Cynthia Stuen, Chair of the NGO Committee on Ageing (New York), asked that we should all work closely together on drafting a Convention on the rights of older persons.
Sylvia Beales for WPD asked a question regarding the importance of widows from the countries represented here advocating for this language in the CSW outcome, so that that it comes not just externally but actually from the countries themselves.

Alice Lees 25.03.2021


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