In many countries around the world, a woman who learns that she has lost her husband knows that the years ahead of her will involve two struggles: in addition to overcoming her grief, she has to provide for herself and her family while surmounting enormous social and economic challenges. Rama Shahi from Dharmasthali, Nepal knows this all too well. In 2015, Rama lost her husband in the Nepal earthquake. Following her husband’s death, his family insisted that they inherit his property, denying Rama her legal rights to remain in her home. Because she had no access to legal support, Rama had to start again from scratch at age 46.
On the occasion of International Widows’ Day, we must consider both the vital role widows play in our society, the ways in which gender inequality impacts their ability to thrive on their own, and the specific recognition and attention that they need from all of us. Of the 258 million widows worldwide, nearly one in ten live in extremely poor households . Where social and legal protection systems discriminate against women, widowed women’s lifetime earnings and savings are restricted. Women are less likely than men to receive a pension in old age, and even in countries with good pension coverage, women are significantly more likely to suffer poverty in old age than men.
In one in five countries with available data, female surviving spouses like Rama Shahi do not have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts. Yet even where the laws are responsive to women’s rights, there is often greater effort needed to ensure that women know their rights and are able to enforce them.
When widows with young children lose property, income and other assets—especially in the absence of support for unpaid care work—they may be forced to take their daughters out of school to work or help take care of siblings and housework. This is how gender inequality perpetuates itself, continuing the cycle of disadvantage for girls and women for decades to come.
It isn’t just middle-aged or older women who struggle. Widowed women are represented across the age spectrum, for example, as a result of the high male mortality rates in countries in conflict, or where there are high rates of child marriage. However, there is a troubling lack of data on the particular experiences of different groups of widows. Prevalence surveys on violence against women, for example, often refer only to women of reproductive age (15-49), and therefore fail to capture violence and abuse of older widows. Without data, policymakers cannot design truly responsive interventions, and women who are at a point in their lives when they most need support are left out and left behind.
To protect and empower women like Rama, it is important that governments address barriers to information, and to justice. In addition to laws that discriminate against widowed women, in many countries they face marginalization as a result of social stigma, which means that legal changes must be accompanied by plans to tackle the norms that have long justified discriminatory practices. Women must have access to legal aid and support, and their political, community and religious leaders must be included in reform processes.
On this International Widows’ Day, let us remember that widows are heroes, working hard to keep families, communities, and societies together following the loss of their spouses. As societies we owe it to the widows of the world to give them the respect, visibility and unique support they need.
 Analysis by Loomba Foundation, The Global Widows Report 2015. London. Based on compilation of UNSD (United Nations Statistics Division) population data and additional individual country census and population survey data.