Empowering Widows in Development
by Laura Slap-Shelton,
Margaret Owen, the author of A World of Widows, is the founder of
Empowering Widows in Development (EWD), a group dedicated to representing
the interests of widows world wide and to ensuring that the needs of
widows are recognized and addressed by international
organizations. EWD is registered as a nonprofit group in the
United Kingdom, and is an unincorporated organization with a board of
Trustees, and an Advisory group. EWD is currently applying for
Consultative Status with the United Nations. Owen is the founding
Courtesy of Noah Addis of the Star-Ledger, N.J.
Owen's group grew out of an important meeting on Widow's
Rights that she organized at the 1995 Beijing Fourth United Nations
Conference on Women. The Widow's Rights meeting identified the
myth believed by many in the West that widows in developing countries
are supported by their extended families and adult sons, local customs. The testimony of the widows at this meeting clearly
revealed the brutal realities of many widow's lives, highlighting the
failure of civil law, religion, and custom to protect women whose
husbands have died. The consensus of the meeting was that
discrimination against widows is so severe that action must be taken to
bring their situation to the attention of the world.
Some of the
truths about widows in developing countries are listed at EWD's website
They are summarized here:
* When their husbands die widows in
developing countries rarely have the right to inherit property or to
have their rights enforced. They are frequently evicted from
their property, their possessions taken from them, and often their
children are also removed from their care
* Thus most widows live in severe
* Even where laws exist to protect women whose
husbands have died, the widows are generally not aware of their rights.
Even when they are, the courts are often controlled by local customs
which give all property to the women's in-laws, or their rights are
lost in the confusion generated by the conflicting systems of family,
local, religious and civil custom, all of which are patriarchal in
conception and organization.
* Widows are particularly vulnerable
to violence, sexual abuse and rape. Domestic violence is particularly
* Coercive traditional burial and mourning rites
are often degrading and harmful to widows, and frequently involve
extreme limitations of their personal freedom, and non-consensual
* Homelessness, illiteracy, and poverty lead widows
into exploitative work situations.
* The extreme poverty and
precariousness of the widow's live leaves their children, and
particularly their daughters in extremely vulnerable positions.
Daughters of widows are more likely to marry very young, and become
widows themselves, thus recreating the cycle of poverty in their own
lives and in the next generation.
* Thousands of widows are very young;
many are actually children.
These facts about widows in
developing countries are ever more urgent given the recent huge
increase in the numbers of widows, especially young widows, due to
AIDS, conflict and ethnic cleansing.
Widows in developing nations
are beginning to come together to work to gain their rights. However,
this type of organization is in its very beginning stages. Owen's
group writes that there is a need for changes in the rate of
illiteracy, improvement in education, and equal access to the legal
system. They note that research into the current needs of widows
is necessary to enable governments in identifying and addressing their
EWD was set up to lobby and advocate for widows in
developing countries at the local, national, and international level.
It has been monitoring the status of widows in 10 countries (Nigeria,
Ghana, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, India, Uganda,
Tanzania, and Malawi). Reports on these countries can be found at their
web site. EWD has received funding from Sweden and the United
Kingdom. It is working with the United Nations on a proposal for
workshops on widows' health in Africa and Asia. EWD is also planning on
focusing on widows in Kosovo. A conference on widows is planned for
early 2001 in London.
For information on how you can help to
further the work of EWD go to the Connections that Empower
page and/or contact EWD through their website.
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