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News From Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD)


Friday, March 4th, 1.15-2.45
Conference Room B. UN Building

The 10-year review of the Beijing Platform of Action (BPFA), and the Outcome Document of Beijing +5 provides a unique opportunity to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to heighten awareness of the situation of widows. Widows are invisible in the BPFA as they are also in the Outcome Document of Beijing + 5

This exclusion is particularly disgraceful given that the plight of widows cross cuts every action area of the BPFA.

Below we summarise the issues of widowhood which are relevant to each action area.

A) Poverty
Widows are the poorest of the poor in many countries. In developing countries and traditional communities, lack of rights to inheritance, land ownership and freedom of mobility leave widows destitute on the death of their husbands. Without land and property widows may be unable to access credit and other services. In developed countries, the majority of the elderly are women dependent on inadequate pensions. Non-income poverty i.e. loss of status, dignity, and participation in social life, isolates widows from the rest of society. In many countries, widowhood is perceived as a status of shame and stigma.

B) Education and Training
Many widows are illiterate and have no qualifications or training for paid employment. Widows need literacy skills and practical induction so they can support their children and send them to school. Many widows’ children are withdrawn from school because of the actual and opportunity costs. Widows are united in their wish to be able to educate their girl children, understanding how their lack of education traps them in poverty, dependency and vulnerability.

C) Women and Health
Research undertaken in India revealed that widows experience higher morbidity and mortality rates than married women of the same age. Poverty deprives widows of adequate shelter, nutrition and health care. In conflict and post-conflict situations, many widows are victims of rape, are infected with HIV/AIDS but are unable to access the appropriate drugs. Poverty forces many widows into exploitative and life-threatening work, including domestic slavery ( in the homes of relatives) and prostitution. Mourning and Burial Rites may be life-threatening as well as degrading.

D) Violence against Women
Although laws and statutes prohibiting violence against women are in place at both national and international levels, in practice violence against women continues. Widows in many communities, are exposed to systematic and routine violence, including sexual violence, within the family. Yet widow-abuse is never mentioned in the BPFA. Para.116 mentions many categories of women vulnerable to violence but not the widow. Disputes over inheritance and property rights often involve beatings of widows. Widows, especially elderly ones, may be accused of being witches and chased from their homes, beaten or stoned to death. Widows, because they are without adult men to protect them, are particularly exposed to violence during and after conflict, in refugee and IDP camps and in transit. Trafficking of young widows and daughters of widows occurs in post-conflict scenarios.

E) Women and Armed Conflict
Neither the BPFA nor Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) has helped to protect widows in conflict and post-conflict environments. While entire communities suffer, widows suffer in specific ways. Often they have watched their husbands and children being butchered; their homes destroyed; and they have been raped, only to become destitute and abandoned, without shelter or support, once peace accords are signed. Many women do not know whether they are widows or not for their husbands are among the “disappeared”. Years after conflicts have ended widows continue to live in refugee camps, displaced, and many cannot ever rebuild their lives because they have no certainty whether their husbands are dead or alive. Refugees, migrant and displaced women are mentioned. But many widows report that struggling to survive in the aftermath of war, with violence and violent men (who may include occupying forces, and even peacekeepers) around them, is far more frightening than when the war was raging, when they knew who the enemy was. In post-conflict and poverty, the enemy is everywhere. The roles that widows play as informal peace-makers and peace builders must be acknowledged. Widows, whatever the faction or side in the conflict, are able to share with the widows of the other side a common wish for peace and the means to raise and educate their children. Their peace efforts require affirmation from all involved in peace negotiations.

F) Women and the Economy
Legal and customary barriers to widows inheriting, owning or accessing land, capital, credit, education, and training inhibits their ability to contribute fully to the economy. Widows do contribute hugely to the economy in many ways as unpaid workers yet this contribution is not acknowledged. They are caregivers for the young, old and sick; farmers; food gatherers and providers. This work – for example, the work undertaken by elderly widowed grandmothers in raising children and orphans of AIDS and war – is not measured in quantitative terms and is not valued in national accounts. Moreover, often customs relating to funeral and mourning prohibit widows from working in the public sector or leaving their homes. Legislative and administrative reforms are needed to give widows equal access to training for employment as other women.

G) Women and Decision-Making
Widows are mainly excluded from decision-making due to the huge burdens on them as sole heads of families, and because, in the majority of countries, they are isolated, have not “banded together”, and therefore are not represented in civil society. It is essential that widows do organise themselves so that their voices can be heard at all levels of decision-making and governance in their communities and country. In particular, they need to have representation in the processes of constitution and law reform. They need to be able to monitor and evaluate new laws and policies and campaign and lobby for change.

I) Human Rights of Women
Human Rights are the birthright of all women, inalienable and universal. No custom, tradition or religion can ever justify the abuse of these rights. Violence, deprivation of freedom of movement, restrictions on life-styles, inequality before the law, and the inaccessibility of the justice system all strike at the very heart of human rights principles. Widows are deprived of their human rights, enshrined in all the HR charters, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), when they cannot inherit, own land, remarry of their own free will, and when they have little recourse to justice and the law because their lives are determined by interpretations of custom and religion that treat them as subordinates. So governments must mainstream widows’ rights into all policies and programmes.

H) Institutional Mechanisms for the Advancement of Women
National Machineries for the Advancement of Women exist now in almost every member state. But data collection has so far not progressed to provide statistics on the numbers, ages, and social and economic circumstances of widows and their children. Nor have widows’ issues and interests been adequately taken up as priority areas by the Ministries of Women, nor the major womens’ NGOs. Since widows are custodians of information governments require to inform their policies, it is incumbent upon governments to make all efforts to involve widows in policy development and seek to hear their voices. Thus governments have a duty to support, by all available means, the establishment of widows’ groups which can then represent widows’ issues in central and local government. What is needed in each country where widowhood is a problem area for the rights of women is a National Federation of Widows, with branches and sub-branches in every town and village. There will be no real change until widows themselves are the agents of change[KB2].

L) The Girl Child
It is in this action area that inheritance rights, harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, female infanticide and son preference are addressed. But there is no mention of the abuse and deprivation of rights suffered by child widows and the daughters of widows. Poverty often forces a widow to surrender her girl child early, and keep her sons, hopeful of their support in her old age. Child labour, child marriage, child sale is often the fate of the daughters of widows. Widows’ children, withdrawn from school, may become street children, or fated to be economically exploited as cheap child labour, in prostitution and as victims of traffickers. The girl child who is married young to an old or sick man is likely to become a child widow. No statistics exist, but, since one of the myths surrounding HIV/AIDS is that sex with a young child will be safe, or even cure a man of the virus, anecdotal evidence indicates that in some countries child marriage, and therefore child widowhood is now increasing. Governments and UN agencies have yet to adequately address this development. The girl child of the widow who is dying of HIV/AIDS and the diseases of poverty may be the unpaid caregiver for younger siblings, as well as older sick and infirm relatives. Behind so many children, deprived of their rights, is a widowed mother. Linking this action area with the Millenium Development Goals on gender equality, education goals, and the control of HIV/AIDS should provide powerful leverage for lobbying in this area of the girl child’s rights.

Institutional Arrangements

National Level:

  • Establish a Federation of Widows’ Associations or Groups
  • Develop a Widows’ Charter or Protocol
  • Undertake a situational analysis of widowhood in collaboration with widows’ groups
  • Use alternative participatory methods of collecting statistics on widows.
  • Train all actors in the justice system, religious and opinion leaders, the media, the education bodies and teachers in Widows’ Rights, as a component of Human Rights
  • Establish a Resource and Hotline Center where widows can obtain information
  • Provide legal aid for widows fighting on inheritance, land rights and personal status.
  • Ensure that Widows’ Association is represented in decision-making bodies, including Law and Constitutional Reform
  • Ensure that governments address widowhood issues in developing their policies to achieve the MDGs.

International and Regional Level:

  • Ensure that widows’ voices are represented in international meetings and conferences on human rights.
  • Widows should collaborate in preparing SHADOW or ALTERNATIVE Reports to the various Human Rights Committees and to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

[KB2] I moved this sentence because it seemed to be a bit of a leap to say that widows must be the agents of change therefore the following actions are incumbent on governments.


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