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
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
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.