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Empowering Widows in Development Finally Heard in the United Nations
by Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.

In a brief interview with Margaret Owen, founder and head of Empowering Widows in Development (EWD) she was thrilled to share the news that the plight of widows is finally being taken seriously by the United Nations. While Ms. Owens, a widow herself and also a lawyer who works on behalf of women’s rights, has been able to put widow’s issues on the agenda of the some United Nations meetings, the recent meeting in March marks the first time that she was invited to speak as a representative of a Non-Governmental Organization or NGO. The United Nations was addressing the issue of women and HIV/AIDS.

In her three minute statement she stated that it is scandalous that United Nations agencies have not collected statistics on women who have been widowed secondary to HIV/AIDS, and who may have AIDS themselves. She pointed out that due to the lack of rights and serious impoverishment of widows, the widows and their children are exposed to acts of sexual exploitation which further contributes to the AIDS epidemic. She noted that in developing countries many women whose husbands have died of AIDS are accused of witchcraft and are persecuted: either killed, or ostracized from their family and community because of this belief. She noted that EWD is in a unique position to document the plight of widows and the relationship between widows and AIDS in developing countries.

Ms. Owen noted that it is extremely hard to understand why the condition of widows is only being considered in light of the AIDS epidemic, but that she feels hopeful that the issues of widows will now receive appropriate attention from the United Nations.

As a result of her greater presence in the United Nations Conference Ms. Owen has been invited to speak for Amnesty International on Violence in the Home. She was also invited to have a private discussion with one of the heads of the UN-AIDS to further discuss the condition of widows living in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.

The resolution that forms the basis of Ms. Owen's statement the Committee on the Status of Women at the United Nations is reprinted below:



We the participants at THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON WIDOWS, wish to draw the attention of governments, the UN and its agencies, the media, and civil society organisations, to the huge increase in the number of widows worldwide due to armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We also wish to highlight the multiple but often hidden human rights violations experienced by widows and child widows in many countries. These violations are embedded in social, political, economic, religious, cultural and traditional beliefs and practices.

As a result of these beliefs and harmful practices, widows and child widows are rendered invisible and subjected to numerous human rights violations including:

  • Violence in all its varied forms
  • Extreme poverty
  • Social and cultural exclusion and marginalisation
  • Oppression and neglect
  • Treatment as objects, commodities or chattels
  • Denial of access to education, health and basic services
  • Multiple obstacles to accessing justice systems
  • Denial of their autonomy and independence

We strongly condemn

  • The continuing formulation, use and enforcement of laws and customs that perpetuate violation of women's human rights, through legal, cultural and religious institutions
  • The mental, physical, emotional and sexual violation of widows
  • The absence of the right of widows to inheritance, property and land ownership
  • The systematic victimisation, exploitation or neglect of older widows
  • The neglect and abuse of children of widows and child widows

We therefore strongly recommend that

  • action be taken to end cruel, dehumanising, repugnant and discriminatory practices and that laws be strengthened to ensure the punishment of perpetrators
  • customary, religious and modern laws reinforcing discriminatory practices be abolished
  • legal reforms in inheritance and landownership rights be enacted and enforced
  • independent research be undertaken into the extent of violations against widows, old and young
  • all aspects of government policy making agendas mainstream widows' concerns
  • national, regional, international meetings be regularly convened to ensure that the collective voices of widows are heard
  • the rights of widows be included in all appropriate international instruments

We ask governments, the UN and its agencies, the media, and civil society organisations to recognise the contribution that widows have already made and will continue to make to the development of their societies and demand urgent and immediate action be taken to end these violations.

This resolution was agreed by the participants at the WIDOWS WITHOUT RIGHTS Conference held in London on February 6 and 7, 2001, and organised by Empowering Widows in Development (EWD), London. Participants came from the following countries:

  • Afghanistan
  • Ghana
  • India
  • Kosovo
  • Malaw
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • Rwanda
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tanzania
  • Zambia
  • Sweden
  • UK

EWD is a development agency which aims to

  • raise awareness and understanding of the problems encountered by widows in developing countries and by widows in situations of conflict in the North
  • promote the status of widows' rights on the international human rights agenda, and assist developing country organisations which support widows to overcome poverty and marginalisation

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