International Widow’s Day – JUNE 23

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Plight of Widows and their Children Around the World

Many people may not know anything about the discrimination against and degradation of widows. It had never been addressed by governments or the UN on a global scale; it had simply been swept under the carpet.  In 2009 The Loomba Foundation commissioned a report to be researched and written on the plight of widows around the world.

widow-and-child-1024x68311The Widows Research Report is a comprehensive study of every facet and factor concerning widowhood; it covers 10 thematic areas and 45 individual topics. It is the first full and comprehensive compilation of the state of widows on a global scale. Following on from the Research Report, the book ‘Invisible Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows Around the World’ was also commissioned by The Loomba Foundation and presented to the UN. This shocking, moving book provides an in-depth analysis of the state of widows, the causes for their deprivation and its effects on their dependant. It also shows how laws have failed and customs and old beliefs continue to torment widows, especially in the developing world.

When faced with these atrocious findings, the UN were moved to join in The Loomba Foundation’s plight for widows.

On 22 December, 2010, the United Nations 65th General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to name 23 June as its International Widows Day; an annual, global day of action to raise awareness about the cultural discrimination of widows. This was a major achievement for The Loomba Foundation, which had launched a campaign for UN recognition of International Widows Day 5 years earlier.

Gomti cooking food in het outdoor kitchen

We have all been made aware of HIV which affects approximately 34 million people in the world today. But do we all know that there are an estimated 115 million widows currently living in poverty? And have we ever been made aware of the fact that 81 million widows in the world today have been abused? In addition to this, due to the cultural discrimination of widows in a number of countries around the world, widows have been targeted for rape, torture and murder; others are forced into prostitution and remarriage and many are victims of property theft, social isolation, physical and psychological abuse.

Millions of widows have been ostracized and abandoned, simply because they are widows.

Some widows, simply because they are widows…

  • have been victims of mental, physical and sexual abuse including rape.
  • have been subjected to customary ‘cleansing’ rituals involving having sex with a member of the deceased husband’s family or a stranger (hugely increasing the chance of contracting HIV).
  • have been looked upon with hatred and suspicion and are considered to be evil and to have brought bad luck to their in-laws family.
  • have been accused of being involved in witchcraft and are therefore systematically tortured and attacked (to the point of murder) or forced to commit degrading acts such as eating human waste or even human flesh.
  • have not been given proper burials and have been simply disposed of.
  • have been accused of murdering their husbands or causing their death by insufficient care (when in fact the husband has died from HIV related illness or some other cause).
  • have been robbed of their inheritance and/or land and personal belongings by their deceased husband’s family.
  • have had their children taken away from them by extended family.
  • have had their hair cut off, jewellery removed and have been forced to wear white for the rest of their lives.
  • have been turned down by their own families for a place to live, due to customary beliefs about them bringing bad luck.
  • have resorted to prostitution in order to feed their children.
  • have ended up living in severe poverty and are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, starvation, poor health, disease and have higher mortality rates.
  • have either been not allowed to remarry, or forced to remarry, often into abusive households.
  • have been asked to leave important ceremonies such as the marriage of their own children.
  • have been left destitute and unable to afford to send their children to school.
  • have had no choice but to send their children out to work or beg, leaving them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and exploitation.
  • have been unable to find employment due to a lack of education and social rejection.
  • have thought about committing suicide to end their hardship.

widow DSC_0138-218x300It is shocking; what’s more shocking is how few people are aware of this gross violation of human rights that is largely based on ‘superstitious’ or ‘cultural’ beliefs about widows being the source of bad luck.

Over the years we have initiated major projects aimed at empowering widows, giving them back their dignity and educating their children. Over the next 3 years we are funding 3 projects to be administered by UN Women. But there is still a lot of work to do and we have a long way to go in terms of raising global awareness. Hopefully by this time next year we will have dramatically increased awareness of the cultural discrimination of widows and The Loomba Foundation’s important work to end it. And hopefully we will be in a position to help widows on a much wider scale.

‘We look after widows and their children, because if we don’t, no-one else will’.

Cultural Discrimination Against Widows

In a number of countries around the world widows are thought to be cursed, involved in witchcraft or to have somehow caused the death of their husbands (when they have actually died from diseases such as HIV). As a result of these superstitious beliefs, millions of widows are being subjected to a life of social exclusion, physical and mental abuse and degradation. Overnight a widow can be completely ostracised from the life that she once knew, by her in-laws, by her own community. She may be thrown out of her home, with or without her children, stripped of all of her possessions and be denied even a pot to cook in. She may no longer be able to afford to send her children to school, be uneducated and unable to find a job. Many widows will be forced to send their children into child labour, putting them at risk of child abuse and exploitation. Some widows are not allowed to remarry; others will marry a relative of their deceased husband against their will.

As if losing a husband is not traumatic enough.

Worse for a Widow

widow african-lady-200x300Hundreds of thousands of women are displaced widows of war, genocide and regional conflict. If life as a refugee is tough, it is a hundred times tougher for a widow. When women lose their husbands they lose all security and means of an income. How can widows keep themselves safe when rape is used as a weapon of war? In some cultures it is considered immoral for a woman to live independently; if widows cannot work or live with their husbands or families, where can they go? Women have lost their husbands who have been fighting for their country and yet their governments are not looking after them or keeping them safe.

Not all widows are old; war, conflict and the widespread of HIV means that some women are widowed at a very early age. Some widows are children, teenagers or in their 20s and will have to live with the stigma and discrimination attached to being a widow for almost their entire lives.

As if being a girl or a woman in certain cultures isn’t hard enough. Widows are facing double discrimination. It is not acceptable that this is a ‘cultural thing’ or something the world can ignore while it deals with everything else; it is criminal, it is systematic abuse played out on the most vulnerable people in society and it is happening right now. It is not the fault of a women that her husband has died, she is not a bad omen or a murderer; she is simply bereft.

The Silence of a Widow

Even in countries where inheritance laws and pensions favouring widows have been passed, how do women living in poverty in rural areas know about their rights? How can they access legal advice? Where can they turn for support? Even if a widow knows about her rights, how will she claim them? In some cultures women do not have the right to an education or have never been afforded one, in others they are not allowed to even speak for themselves, let alone work or take their in-laws to court. If this issue is not isn’t properly and thoroughly addressed, the rights of widows will continue to be ignored and silenced by relatives who want to rob them of any inheritance.

Thank you to the following photographers who provided images of widows for our campaign: Suzanne Liem (The Loomba Foundation), Jeff Williams (Help Age International) and Antonio Olmos (Help Age International). All footage taken from interviews with widows (The Loomba Foundation).

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