Plight of Widows and Their Children Around the World
We have all been made aware of HIV which affects approximately 34 million people in the world today. But do we all know that there are over 116 million widows currently living in poverty, of which almost 60 million live in extreme poverty in which basic living needs are not met? And have we ever been made aware of the fact that 81 million widows in the world today have suffered physical abused? In addition to this, due to the cultural discrimination of widows in a number of countries around the world, widows have been targeted for rape, torture and murder; others are forced into prostitution and remarriage and many are victims of property theft, social isolation, physical and psychological abuse; others must perform mourning rituals that leave them at high risk of contracting HIV and other serious diseases. Millions of widows have been ostracised and abandoned, simply because they are widows. It is shocking, what’s more shocking is how few people are aware of this gross violation of human rights that is based on ‘cultural’ beliefs and the desire by family and neighbours for economic exploitation of women at their most vulnerable moment.
Photography by Suzanne Liem
Over the years we have initiated major projects aimed at empowering widows, giving them back their dignity and educating their children. We are currently in the process of fundraising for and implementing a major livelihoods programme in India and Africa to provide widows the training and means to earn a living. But there is still a lot of work to do and we have a long way to go in terms of raising global awareness and concrete measures by NGOs, governments and communities.
Cultural Discrimination Against Widows
In a number of countries around the world widows are thought to be cursed, involved in witchcraft or to have somehow caused the death of their husbands (when they have actually died from diseases such as HIV). As a result of these beliefs, millions of widows are being subjected to a life of social exclusion, physical and mental abuse and degradation. Overnight a widow can be completely ostracised from the life that she once knew, by her in-laws, by her own community. She may be thrown out of her home, with or without her children, stripped of all of her possessions and be denied even a pot to cook in. This often happens from economic opportunism by family or neighbours, in Africa they refer to it on the ground as “grabbing”. She may no longer be able to afford to send her children to school, be uneducated and unable to find a job, or the jobs may be at levels of pay that force her and her children to live in extreme poverty – in which basic needs cannot be met. Many widows will be forced to send their children into child labour, putting them at risk in hazardous work and of sexual abuse. Some widows are not allowed to remarry; others will marry a relative of their deceased husband against their will in order to keep their home and their children, in the process making a choice between risking HIV or immediate destitution.
Worse for a Widow
Hundreds of thousands of women are displaced widows of war, genocide and community conflict. If life as a refugee is tough, it is a hundred times tougher for a widow. When women lose their husbands, they lose all security and most of their income. How can widows keep themselves safe when rape is used as a weapon of war? In some cultures it is considered immoral for a woman to live independently, yet if widows cannot work or live with their husbands or families, where can they go? Women have lost their husbands who have been fighting for their country and yet their governments do not look after them or keep them safe.
Not all widows are old, in South Asia for example, around 55% of widows are under age 60. Young women become widows through war, conflict and the widespread of HIV means that some women are widowed at a very early age. Some widows are children, teenagers or in their 20s and will have to live with the stigma and discrimination attached to being a widow for almost their entire lives.
As if being a girl or woman is of often hard enough, as a widow they face double discrimination. It is not acceptable that this is left as a ‘cultural thing’, the United Nations now recognises a category of cultural practices as “harmful traditional practices”; a great deal of it is systematic abuse played out on the most vulnerable people in society and it is happening right now. It is not the fault of a women that her husband has died, she is not a bad omen or a murderer and should not be seen as a target for easy economic exploitation through property theft.
The Silence of a Widow
Even in countries where inheritance laws and pensions favouring widows have been passed, how do women living in poverty in rural areas know about their rights? How can they access legal advice? Where can they turn for support? Even if a widow knows about her rights, how will she claim them? In some cultures women do not have the right to an education or have never been afforded one, in others they are not allowed to even speak for themselves, let alone work or take their in-laws to court. In many cases, “customary law” – the law of culture – is allowed to supersede government law to allow relatives to disinherit widows or remove their children. If this issue is not properly and thoroughly addressed, the rights of widows will continue to be ignored and silenced.