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WOMEN FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, single women group (WHR)

"No discrimination on the basis of marital status"

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Statement To The 58th Session Of The UN Commission On The Status Of Women – 2014

November 8th, 2013

Widowhood issues must be addressed in the context of strategies for the post-2015 development framework.

Submitted By: Association of War Affected Women Sri Lanka; Guild of Service India; Mama Zimbi Ghana; Women for Human Rights, single women group (WHR) Nepal and Widows for Peace through Democracy UK


The Women for Human Rights-Single Women’s Group (WHR-SWG), a partner of the International NGO Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD), works to promote the status of widows in Nepal, and acts as the Secretariat for the South Asian Network for Empowering Widows in Development (SANWED) which is the umbrella for widows’ organizations of the six countries in the region.

The MDGs agenda provides many challenges for the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.  It must now also provide a window of opportunity to lift the blanket of silence on widowhood issues.  Regrettably, the existing MDG goals have failed to improve the status of widows, so as to relieve their and their children’s poverty and marginalization.    We ask that the “stand-alone” goal on Women and Girls, in the High Level Panel report, is non-negotiable and that targets are disaggregated by marital status in addition to other criteria.

Never before has the female population, especially in developing and conflict-afflicted countries, contained so many widows of all ages from the child widow to the young widowed mother and the elderly grandmother. Populations across the world are ageing and in elderly populations, women predominate and the majority of these women are widows. The numbers of widows are increasing unprecedentedly and daily due to armed conflict, revolution, sectarian strife, ethnic cleansing, HTPS and in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  Estimates for some countries suggest that over 60% of all women in those countries are widows or wives of the missing and 70% of the children are dependent on destitute women without male breadwinners.

It is essential that governments and UN agencies focus specifically on the particular situation of WIDOWS if the post 2015 MDGs are to have any realistic chance of being reached. The poverty, neglect and invisibility of widows recycles and expands the poverty trap to embrace all those dependent on them with irrevocable consequence for society as a whole. None of the major donors or UN agencies including UN WOMEN has so far managed adequately to support initiatives to empower widows, so that their voices are heard so as to influence policies that can protect and empower them. 

There is little reliable dataon, inter alia, numbers, ages, needs, roles, life-styles, experience of violence, coping strategies, support systems and aspirations of widows in developing, and particularly conflicted afflicted countries. The absence of such information obstructs planning and implementing effective actions to improve the living conditions of the widows, their families and their communities’ actions which are crucial to the fulfilment of MDGs. Although, in Nepal there have been significant advancements in terms of the Census data particularly focused on widows. According to Central Bureau of Statistics of Nepal 87% of widows cannot read and write, thus increasing the number of dependent and vulnerable widows, few other developing countries have counted their widows. Alternative methodologies must be used to fill this gap through UN agencies and governments working with widows’ NGOS to gather information from the grass roots on these issues. A global mapping and profiling project should be a crucial first step, followed by legislation and policy changes in every country to improve the status of widows, and so reduce this important barrier to achieving the MDGs. Widowhood is a root cause of poverty.

Violence and Stigma in Widowhood: Widows are likely to suffer extreme and systematic physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence both within their families and in the outside community. They are so often victims of discrimination, stigma and harmful traditional practices. For example, the branding of widows as witches; degrading and life threatening mourning and burial rites; stereotyping them as “inauspicious” and “evil” fuels tortures, such as beating,  stoning, and even murder. Extreme and discriminatory interpretations of religious, traditional and customary codes contribute to such violence, and governments, in spite of reformed laws purporting to protect women from such abuse, are reluctant to intervene in the domestic arena where non-state actors are the perpetrators. In conflict and post conflict scenarios, this violence is exacerbated.

Regrettably, in spite of huge efforts by widows’ NGOs, to have text on widowhood violence inserted in the Outcome Document of the 57th CSW, whose priority theme was “Prevention and Elimination of Violence to Women and Girls”, in its final version all references to this type of gender based violence was omitted.

Access to Justice:  In so many developing countries, the lives of many widows, especially rural ones, are determined by discriminatory interpretations of religion, custom and tradition in spite of the enactment of modern laws that comply with international conventions such as the CEDAW. Barriers include illiteracy, bureaucracy, corruption, prejudices of those administering the justice system, as well as affordability. In addition, many widows fear that by attempting to use the courts to obtain remedies they will provoke further violence.

Impact on Children of Widows, especially the Girl Child: The poverty, marginalisation and stigma of widowhood impacts irrevocably on their dependents.  Children of widows are least likely to access education. Widowed mothers are forced to withdraw their children from school, depend on their children’s labour, whether as carers of younger siblings, or in exploitation on the streets as beggars (widows’ children predominate among street children). The girl child, denied education, is more likely to be given, sold, trafficked into early forced marriage, or into prostitution.  The MDG frameworks should provide opportunities to ensure the education of all children, irrespective of their family circumstances.

Conflict Widows: Widows’ protection in contexts of conflict and their participation in peace processes must be enhanced, in conformity with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and other relevant Resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security. For example, there are uncounted numbers of widows and wives of the “disappeared” who, because of the conflict, lose all their fundamental rights and freedoms, and who need representation in peace processes. We applaud the endorsement of 122 Member States to the Hague Declaration on Eliminating Sexual Violence in Conflict and hope that this initiative along with the gender related UN Security Council Resolutions will be promoted in the Post 2015 MDGs so as protect widows from violations of their rights.

Widows and wives of the missing constitute a large part of refugees and IDP populations worldwide, and are often the last to be resettled. Widows claiming asylum on grounds of persecution because of their marital status, who may also be rape victims in conflict zones, often faced insuperable problems in gaining refuge.

Inheritance, Land and Property Rights: Widows, in spite of modern legislation ratifying the article of the CEDAW, continue in many countries to be denied inheritance.  They may be treated as chattels, part of the estate, and “inherited” by a husband’s brother or cousin.  Lack of land rights, “chasing-off” and property grabbing are common occurrences in many regions of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.  The MDG framework references inheritance and land issues which are so relevant to widows’ status.

Impact of Global recession and financial systems on widows: Few developing countries can afford to provide social security for widows and in cases where this is available, it is generally a needs based approach rather than a rights based one. In developed countries, due to the recession many elderly widows dependent on state pensions are also living in relative poverty as the cost of living rises.  Where a pension system does exist, as in India, widows often face difficulties in accessing their pensions due to bureaucracy, corruption and their illiteracy that facilitates the seizure of their benefits by male relatives.  Younger widows are vulnerable to economic exploitation including domestic as well as sexual slavery. Widows require training for employment in order to survive and raise their children and are often vulnerable to traffickers as domestic servants to countries where they lose all their rights.

Role of UN WOMEN: In order for the MDG framework to be implemented to accommodate the issues of widowhood, widows need to have the direct and focused support of UN WOMEN.   We would like to see Member States supporting UN WOMEN establish a special section at headquarters and in their regional offices that supports widows “banding together”, forming their own associations and NGOs, so that they have a collective voice to inform and influence policies to implement the MDG goals and further identify the targets.

Finally, in this Statement, we repeat our appeal to the UN Secretary-General, given the huge numbers of widows and wives of the disappeared in so many regions, to appoint a UN Representative on WIDOWHOOD.