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This International Widows Day, I am calling for greater financial help for millions of widows left struggling while grieving and an end to harmful, degrading traditions
Cherie Blair CBE QC is president of The Loomba Foundation. She is a leading international human rights lawyer, campaigner for women’s equality, and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We face a colossal yet invisible crisis. It’s not something you discuss around the dinner table or see in the mainstream media every day, but it blights the lives of many millions of women. I’m talking about widowhood which, apart from the devastation of losing a spouse, brings a great deal of additional loss.
There are around 285 million widows globally, a figure growing ever higher as a result of Covid-19, armed conflict and displacement. Over 115 million of these women live in extreme poverty while trying to care for their children. Ignored, voiceless, powerless – the abuses and injustices faced by widows serve to impoverish them, leading to their exclusion not just from society but from the economy.
In many parts of the world, but most commonly in developing countries across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, women’s status and economic security are tied directly to men. Upon the death of their husbands, many face harmful and humiliating practices. They are dehumanised and stripped of their possessions. We’ve heard heartbreaking stories of ‘cleansing’ rituals where widows are required to drink the water used to wash their dead husband’s body or made to have sexual intercourse with – or be ‘inherited’ by – their husband’s relative. Often, widows are blamed for the death of their spouse and seen as bringing bad luck. They may have to adopt particular clothing or shave their heads – a mark of their exclusion. This is unacceptable in the 21st century.
As the world marks International Widows Day on June 23, it’s our responsibility as an international community to commit to bring them into the formal economy. When this day was established by the United Nations in 2010, we saw a real step forward in awareness of the plight of widows, but there’s still a long road ahead. Poverty and widowhood are closely interlinked. We won’t meet the global Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to eliminate poverty, enable access to education and promote gender equality, unless we tackle the abuses and stigma faced by widows.
In too many places, widows are cut off from any economic lifeline, and the loss of income upon the death of the breadwinner can plunge families into destitution. Widows often have no access to pensions or bank accounts, while a lack of adequate social welfare and healthcare pushes them further under the radar. In many societies, women are either not allowed to take on employment or are paid pitiful amounts due to discrimination. Children’s education is one of the first things to go, as many are driven to child labour to support their families. All of this perpetuates the ugly cycle of deprivation for generations.
Many widows are also denied inheritance rights and face homelessness, theft of land and loss of property. World Bank findings reveal that, out of 190 economies, 40% limit the property rights of women.
How can we address this? Governments can help solve the crisis by providing micro finance for women, pensions that aren’t linked to marital status, as well as legal and financial assistance to bring an inheritance claim to court. A major block to progress is a lack of literacy, numeracy and business skills among poor widows. One huge area of focus should be breaking down barriers to accessing vocational training.
Training initiatives can help widows earn a fair wage, become self-sufficient, educate their children to transform their future prospects, and build a long-term safety net. It’s one of the strongest ways to improve women’s economic empowerment. In 2016, we worked on a programme to offer vocational training to 5,000 impoverished widows in India, which had the knock-on effect of supporting 50,000 of their dependents.
Since International Widows Day was established, we've seen governments and local authorities start to shape policies to abolish the cruel custom of ostracising widows. For instance, Kolhapur village in the western Maharashtra region of India recently banned traditional widowhood ‘rites’ whereby women were shunned even by their own relatives. A bill has also been proposed in Nigeria to impose heavy penalties for carrying out degrading widowhood practices, and we’re seeing efforts in the United States to bring forward a resolution to eliminate widow abuses globally.
It is my deep hope that many more nations will follow these examples. Widows deserve to come out of the shadows.
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