Explainer: What you should know about widowhood

For many women around the world, the devastating loss of a partner is magnified by a long-term fight for their basic rights and dignity. Despite the fact that there are more than 258 million widows around the world, widows have historically been left unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in our societies.

Today, as armed conflicts, displacement and migration, and the COVID-19 pandemic leave tens of thousands of women newly widowed and many others whose partners are missing or disappeared, the unique experiences and needs of widows must be brought to the forefront, with their voices leading the way.

On International Widows’ Day, 23 June, take a look at some of the issues affecting widows around the world and what must be done to safeguard and advance their rights.

What challenges does widowhood bring?

Hawa, 23, was eight months pregnant when her husband was killed in the fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR). Her father and brother were also killed and her mother disappeared, leaving her completely alone. She fled and crossed into Cameroon, becoming a refugee at the Gado camp, where she gave birth to a son, Haphisi Ibrahim. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

As widows move through their own experiences of grief, loss, or trauma after the death of a spouse, they may also face economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatization, and harmful traditional practices on the basis of their marital status.

In many countries, widows do not have equal inheritance rights, and they may be stripped of their land, evicted from their home, or even separated from their children. They may be denied access to inheritance, bank accounts, and credit, which can have significant financial impacts for them, their children, and future generations. It is estimated that nearly one in ten widows worldwide lives in extreme poverty.

Women are also much less likely to have access to pensions than men, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for women of older ages. On the other hand, child widows, girls given into marriage before 18 years old and whose husband died, experience multiple rights violations and face life-long impacts from premature marriage and widowhood. At least 1.36 million of the approximately 258 million widows globally are child widows, but the true number is likely higher due to under-reporting.

In addition to facing economic insecurity, widows may be subject to stereotypes, prejudices, and harmful traditional practices with severe consequences. They may face restrictions on their dress, diet, and mobility for years after the death of a partner.

In some contexts, widows may be perceived as “carriers” of disease and forced out of social structures entirely or subjected to “ritual cleansing” practices involving forced sex or bodily scarring that can have life-threatening health consequences. Sometimes widows are forcibly “passed on” to or “inherited” by a new designated partner, such as the brother or other relative of her deceased spouse, denying her of her rights to safety, bodily autonomy, justice, and dignity in life after loss.

How does widowhood intersect with other forms of discrimination?

Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

When a woman’s value is contingent on having a spouse, widowhood can force women out of familial and social structures, leaving them particularly vulnerable to poverty, isolation, and violence. These challenges may be compounded by struggles that widows face on account of other intersecting identities: as Black and Indigenous women, members of LGBTQI+ communities, women affected by conflict, women with disabilities, women of young and older ages, women living in poverty or rural areas, and other marginalized identities.

Rosalia Tuyuc Velásquez, from San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, has not seen her husband since 23 May 1984, when he was captured by the army during the 36-year-long armed conflict between the military and guerilla groups that killed at least 200,000 people, mostly indigenous. “I looked for him in hospitals, on the streets and in prisons. I never found him,” says Velásquez, who, more than 35 years later, is still searching for his remains.

But her search is not only for her family, she says. It’s also a search for peace and dignity for thousands of indigenous women who were raped, and who lost their spouses and loved ones during the conflict: “Perhaps we didn’t know what human rights were, but we knew what it meant to live free. When the conflict came, all that freedom, peace, security went away. Not only for my family, but thousands of families.”

How can we ensure that global movements include widows’ perspectives?

Margaret Owen. Photo courtesy of Margaret Owen

Widows’ voices and experiences must be centred in the movements and policies that impact their lives. From local campaigns to international action, it is imperative that widows speak to and make decisions about their own situations and needs.

Margaret Owen is a widows’ rights advocate and human rights lawyer. Although she had been involved in the women’s rights movement for most of her life, Owen hadn’t paid attention to widows’ rights until her husband’s passing. Shortly after the death of her husband, a woman from Malawi whom she was helping came to her home. “Before she even sat down, she gasped,” recalls Own. “Looking around my living room, she said, ‘your husbands’ brothers let you stay here and keep all these things?’” Her words stayed with Owen as she began researching global widows’ issues and discovered a major lack of awareness on the subject, even among feminists. To fill this gap, Owen founded Widows for Peace through Democracy, an organization that works to ensure that all widows are protected from discrimination and violence and can enjoy their full human rights.

Owen advocates for the meaningful inclusion of widows in all areas that impact them, including conflict settings, where women who lost their spouses, family, and loved ones must be able to participate fully in peacebuilding and reconciliation processes. “ It is vital that National Action Plans in the Women, Peace, and Security context include actions to count, map, and profile widows and half-widows (their partners are missing or disappeared), so that their needs are addressed, and they have access to restorative justice, support, pensions, and resettlement,’ she says. “How can there ever be truth and reconciliation, justice, an end to violence against women, and sustainable peace without the inclusion of widows?” Owen asks.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of women have been widowed by the virus and may be grieving, while cut off from their usual socio-economic and family supports. As nations continue to fight the virus on the front lines or begin recovery efforts, widows must not be left out of economic stimulus and social assistance programmes, or as decision-makers and beneficiaries of plans to “build back better”.

What can we do to safeguard and advance the rights of widows worldwide?

Durdana, a once landless woman farmer, proudly shows off her land and Land Tenancy Agreement in Dadu District, Sindh Province, Pakistan. In Pakistan, UN Women, in collaboration with local partners, has worked with more than 1,200 rural women farmers to acquire land tenancy rights. “I do not know anything else but working in the fields,” says Durdana. “For the first time in my life I can say something is mine. This land, as far as the eye can see is mine—this paper says so.” Photo: UN Women/Faria Salman

To safeguard and advance widows’ rights, here are some actions that governments, policymakers and each of us can take:

  1. Adopt social and economic reforms to improve widows’ access to inheritance, land, pensions, and other social protections. Ensure that fiscal policies, economic relief measures for COVID-19 includes widows.

  2. End discriminatory laws and patriarchal systems that have long disadvantaged women. Women cannot inherit equally as men in 36 countries, cannot be heads of households or families in 31 countries, and cannot have a job or pursue a profession in 17 states. Such discriminatory laws, which rob widows of property, shelter, income, social benefits, and opportunity, must be struck down to advance women’s rights worldwide.

  3. Empower widows to support themselves and their families and live with dignity by ensuring access to education and training opportunities, decent work and equal pay, and by reversing social stigmas that exclude, discriminate, or lead to harmful and violent practices against widows.

  4. Collect gender data—better quality demographic information, broken down by age and gender, to ensure that widows are counted and supported, now and in the future. The United Nations suggests a minimum of five marital status categories when collecting census data, “widowed and not remarried” included.

  5. Support international efforts and advocacy to uphold and expand the rights of widows as enshrined in international laws and conventions.

  6. On International Widows’ Day, learn and share stories, voices and experiences of widows and support their rights. Follow #WidowsDay on social media.

Originally published on UN Women