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Widowhood Changed
The Way I Looked At Human Rights (cont.)
  by Margaret Owen     © Margaret Owen – 2005 page 1 | 2
  DATE: 11/15/05 ORIGIN: UK

Returning to London, I set about establishing the first and only international NGO for widows. Since 1999, my voice has been heard regularly at the Status of Women Commission, and every year since then we have held meetings at the UN, often in collaboration with UNIFEM and UNDAW in the context of implementation of the relevant themes of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA). Also, the UNDAW commissioned me to author their publication “Widowhood” in their Women 2000 series. This is available free in all the official UN languages at UN information centers worldwide. Gradually, awareness is spreading.

In 2001, our UK Government joined with the Swedish Government to fund the first International Conference on Widows’ Rights, held in London. Widow activists came from more than a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Kosovo, Nigeria, Malawi, Tanzania, India and Sri Lanka. This historic meeting initiated follow-up national and regional conferences in South Asia. We hope we will soon see similar regional events taking place in Francophone as well as Anglophone Africa. We need also to ensure that widows have representation and organizations in the Middle East, Latin America, the Balkans and Eastern Europe where issues of widowhood poverty, discrimination and injustice have still to be addressed. For it is clear no real change will come about in the status of widows unless they themselves are the “agents of change."

Today more and more widows are beginning to “band together” to campaign for changes in the laws on inheritance, land rights, and persona status. They are challenging contemporary attitudes, harmful customs such as “property grabbing” and “chasing-off," and repellent traditions such as “ritual cleansing," scarification and shaving rituals. Literacy and income-generating training are helping to make widows economically independent, and this is seen as the surest way of eliminating violence perpetrated by their relatives. This year I developed a draft “Widows Charter ” based on international law, which was presented at a UN meeting and has been taken on board by several partner groups in the developing world as a tool for lobbying for law reform.

But inevitably, we are unable to keep pace with the rapid changes in the international scene. Armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, the scourge of AIDS, and child marriage to far older and often sick men have resulted in an unprecedented explosion in the numbers of widows worldwide. In several poor countries (generally patriarchal in culture and afflicted by wars and disease), it is thought that over 50% of all adult women may be widows or wives of the “disappeared.” In Iraq, 65% of women are estimated to be in this category, although there are no official statistics. Many are very young mothers, some of them still children themselves. They struggle to survive not only in extreme poverty but amid intense discrimination and exclusion. In the turbulent instability of post-conflict situations, gender violence escalates. Widows and their daughters are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, rape, trafficking, prostitution and other forms of economic exploitation and desperately need our support.

Widows in most traditional societies are mostly perceived as inauspicious and bringers of bad luck. The names for widows in vernacular languages reflect this attitude. Across regions and cultures the local names for widows mean “whore,” “witch,” “sorceress.” When traditional, customary and religious laws coexist with modern laws, widows’ lives are determined by interpretations of the latter, with dire consequences for their welfare. Unable to access the modern justice system, they are often quite beyond the scope of the international human rights legal frameworks.

Few developing countries have bothered to gather statistics and data about their situation. Yet it is the publication of statistics that can effectively shame and galvanize governments into action. Widows’ groups are beginning to undertake their own surveys, filling the gap in knowledge and providing the details of their day-to-day lives which are crucial to forging the policies needed for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the real observance of international standards of human rights. In August, 2005. I was part of a team in Sri Lanka that established SANWED (South Asian Network for Widows Empowerment in Development). This initiative will bring together all the widows’ groups in the five countries in the region to strengthen their international voice. In December, widows’ activists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka will brainstorm in Chennai, Southern India, to develop new strategies for empowering widows and ensuring their rights. Later this year, I will address the International Federation of Women Lawyers’ (FIDA) annual conference on Widowhood and Human Rights.

How privileged I have been to become part of this hidden area of women’s human rights. In the decade since I started this work, I have met so many wonderful women across the world. I am amazed by their resilience, courage, wisdom, love and selflessness. They have risen from the depths of despair and abandonment to rebuild their lives. No longer alone, they take their strength from the togetherness of widows, in their communities, countries and regions, and now in an international sisterhood.

On the one hand, the world is a less safe place for women—especially for widows and their children—who bear the brunt of war, corruption and gender violence. But I see hope in the fact that more women are now in decision-making positions, and governments are realizing they must involve civil society, particularly women’s organizations, in the development of policies to combat poverty and discrimination.

A marvelous development this year was the announcement, by the UK Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Blair, of the date of an INTERNATIONAL WIDOWS DAY. It is June 23rd.

Let us all work together, wherever we are, to ensure this day is celebrated in every country, so we may mark the crucial roles widows play in society and the progress made to ensure their rights.


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