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From Camp Widow 2010 Global Panel

Comparing our lives as widows in the United States with the lives of widows in developing countries


When Women Are Not Recognized as Fully Equal Human Beings
Many things go wrong
For Widows Everything goes wrong

By Laura Slap-Shelton, Psy.D.

Comparing our lives as American Widows to those of Widows in Developing Countries: NINE Areas of Experience.

First -Two Critical Thoughts:

  1. If you were so unlucky as to be a woman born into countries with the practices we are about to discuss, these practices would most likely happen to you
  2. In cultures in which the husband holds all of the civil rights for the family, (i.e. patriarchal cultures) when the husband dies, so do the civil rights of the family.

As Dr. V. Mohini Giri said in a recent interview (not with me): “India being a patriarchal society, the women is discriminated at her birth itself. Hence, when she loses her husband and becomes a widow, she loses her identity.”

Setting the stage: preconditions to widowhood:

Area 1: Education: Women and men are both educated vs. only men are educated

  • In the U.S. male and female attend school through high school and can go on to college
  • In developing countries men are preferentially educated over girls
  • In developing countries religious practices may make it a sin to educate a girl (Taliban)
  • Children of widows are often removed from school as they are needed to earn money for the family and thus perpetuate a cycle of poverty
  • Widowed women are not educated enough to join the work force (also a problem with many Iraqi women following the Iraqi War

Area 2: Marriage: Women as free citizens vs. women as property

  • In the U.S. for the most part we chose our partners and we come to marriage with an education, and the ability to take care of ourselves, however we define our role in our marriages
  • In Africa, India and other cultures the parents determine who their daughter will marry: often along economic lines with the woman being ‘given’ to the man’s family in turn for a dowry. Essentially the woman is transferred as property
  • Women marry as complete dependents, often illiterate, not trained to work outside of the home,
  • Children, as young as 10 years of age are married off to much older men who die creating more widows and more impoverished children

First Experiences of Widowhood:

Area 3: Funeral and Burial Practices: Women as Mourners vs. Women as Villains and Co-Deceased

  • In U.S. laws govern what can be done with body of deceased; funerals and burials follow traditions that do not harm but rather honor the widows.
  • In developing countries widows are suspected of having murdered or caused the death of their husband
  • In developing countries widows are often called:
    Are shunned and
    Are not allowed to attend weddings and family occasions
  • In developing countries funeral practices involve cleansing rituals which are damaging to the widows:
    • Sati in India- live burning of the widow on the dead spouse’s funeral pyre to
    • Widow made to sit with the dead body of her spouse for days or longer
    • Widow made to drink the water used to bath the dead body of her spouse
    • Widow’s hair shaved, and bangles broken, limited clothing
    • Widow made to sit for long period of time with little or no food or water and not permitted to bathe
    • Widow forced to have sex with male members of husband’s family
  • In developing countries female friendships are not strong enough to override the huge, political, religious and cultural biases against and practices done to women who have been widowed. Your friends will not help you.

What happens Next:

Area 4: In-laws: Women free to relate as wish vs. Women as new employees- absorbed into family hierarchy

  • In U.S. we all take our chances with our in laws but they have no legal or socially condoned powers over us
  • In developing countries, the wife is often absorbed into the husbands family, and has responsibilities to the family-
  • In developing countries and other countries widows may be forced into marrying a brother of the deceased
  • In Iraq a plan was made to help the widows by forcing them into marriages of convenience.
  • Regardless of remarriage widows are often sexually abused by male members of husband’s family
  • In U.S. widows can choose how to relate to their in laws- in laws do not have an automatic right to their children, possessions, and to control the activities of the widow
  • In the developing countries many widows remain and become servants of husbands family, treated poorly, deprived of status, possessions and often their children who may be sold into slavery or given away, or raised to treat their mother like a servant, or deprived of education
  • In developing countries widows are often abandoned – in India often left in the City of Widows where they eke out a substandard and isolated life cut off from their children and family, singing for alms in Ashrams, where they are often abused and begging on the streets. They are forced to wear white.
  • In-laws enforce the unhealthy, unsafe, demeaning funeral and burial practices

Area 5: Family: Women reasonably expect the support of their family of origin vs. Women cannot expect the help of family, as they are too much of a burden

  • In the U.S. widows can reasonably hope for some love and support from their family of origin- this doesn’t always happen but it is highly possible.
  • In developing countries widows are often not welcome back as they were sold to the in-laws and are the in-law’s property
  • In developing countries even if the family of origin would like to help they cannot because they are impoverished
  • In developing countries family of origin may choose not to help because of the status of a widow as a witch, etc.

Area 6: Children: Women keep and raise their children vs. women loose their children to in laws, poverty, and crime

  • In the U.S. widows keep their children
  • In developing countries children are often treated as commodities and may be taken from the widow by the in–laws
  • Children may be raised by in-laws with no input from widow, taught to disdain the widow, or part of abandoning widow
  • Children may be seen as economic burdens by in-laws and sold
  • Girl children are often remarried for dowries to older men

Area 7: Employment: Women welcome in the work force vs. women not welcome.

  • In U.S. women are educated and welcome in the work force- although this has been an uphill battle and equal wages for equal work are not the law here yet
  • In developing countries women not educated and often have no skills with which to work
  • Problems relating to women effect widows to greater degree- for example a woman in some culture must always be accompanied by a male but if widowed there is no male
  • Professional women may not be protected once widowed
  • Widows not protected from exploitation and abuses of all kinds in the workplace

Area 8: Health: Reasonable access to health care and safety vs. forced into situations which put health at risk, limited health care

“A woman deprived, abandoned, malnourished will naturally have a high mortality rate,” V. Mohini Giri

  • In U.S. to degree that any of us have health care women have health care or mostly equal health care.
  • In U.S. for the most part women are not expected to engage in activities which threaten their health
  • Widows in developing countries forced to have sex with in-laws and widows sexually exploited due to their lack of rights are put at significant risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
  • Widows because they are prevented from controlling their sexual activity contribute to spread of AIDS and other diseases
  • Girl children forced to have sex and pass sexual diseases along
  • Sexual diseases transmitted to babies coming from unwanted sexual intercourse
  • Impoverished status and limited rights prevent access to health care for widow and her children

Area 9: Identity: Struggling with Inner Identity and Mild Social Adjustments vs. Becoming a nonhuman outcast while also coping with grief

As widows we know how confusing life becomes and how our identities shift and change after the death of our spouse

BUT IMAGINE if on top of this, you also had to cope with society’s complete and utter rejection of you as a person.

Recent estimates (believed to be low) indicate that:

  • There are 245 Million widows around the world,
  • 115 Million widows live in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.00 U.S. a day)
  • 500 million children affected by the widowhood of their mother.
  • One sixth of families in the world effected by widowhood
  • Over 50 percent of women in conflict countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, parts of India) are estimated to be widowed

SO: What can we do to help?

  1. Become aware – Thanks for coming to this panel!
  2. Discourage negative images of widows from taking hold by example and by sharing your experience. Let’s not have any more Katy Couric comments about how awful the word “widow” is.
  3. Consider contributing money or service to an organization directly working with widows in developing countries
  4. Make others aware
  5. Become a little political – sign a petition
    • Tom Lantos is sponsoring the International Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2009 (S. 987 and H.R. 2103) and we can let our representatives know that we support it.
    • Encourage our representatives to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
    • The U.S. is the only democratic country not to have ratified it and 186 out of 193 countries have ratified it
    • Urge United Nations officials to include Widowhood and Marital status in the Millennium Development Goals
  6. Buy goods made by widows
  7. Support a micro loan for a widow
  8. Heal, Love, Take care of yourself,
  9. Never give up your civil rights!


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