For many women around the world, the death of a spouse is magnified by many losses — of their social status, marital home, land, property, social security, dignity and, sometimes, their children. But men, on the other hand, lose none of their human rights while usually gaining support in starting a new chapter in his life.
Unfortunately, discriminatory and punitive behavior toward widows ostracizes them, forces many of them and their children into poverty and represents a form of gender-based violence that is unjust and unacceptable.
The United Nations observes June 23 as International Widows’ Day to draw global attention to the voices and experiences of an estimated 258 million widows worldwide, of whom one in 10 lives in extreme poverty, according to a 2018 report by UN Women. Many widows face economic, social, physical and psychological violence by their marital families and communities. This maltreatment is worsened by lack of awareness, resources and access to justice.
We have both witnessed the harmful practices widows face as young professionals working in Nigeria and India, experiences that have shaped our work and led to our understanding of this global human-rights violation. Many widows face eviction from their homes and denial of their inheritance rights to land and other property for which they have worked and on which they depend for their livelihood.
Customary laws and cultural norms tacitly support such economic violence against widows despite statutory law protections. Impoverished widows are often forced into “levirate” marriages — as if they were property to be inherited by a male in-law — and some are forced to fight in court for custody of their children, if they have the knowledge and resources to do so.
Many widows also endure harmful traditional practices that isolate and shame them. For example, in some communities in Nigeria, older widows are expected to forcefully shave the heads of younger widows. New widows may be confined for weeks and forbidden to bathe, while forced by their in-laws to cry in public. And we’ve seen firsthand how some communities in India enforce stigmatizing codes that govern a widow’s dress and diet.
Often, behavior codes in cultures around the world restrict a widow’s mobility, barring her from access to job training to upgrading her earning abilities to support herself and her family. Children of widows, especially girls, suffer too, since they are often withdrawn from school and vulnerable to abuse. This contributes to an intergenerational cycle of poverty and sexual violence.
Remember, too, that despite the stereotype, not all widows are old. Violent conflicts in countries where forced marriages to children create many child widows. In some cases, child widows are widowed more than once before they reach the age of consent. Widows of all ages may lose their spouses due to war, riots, natural disasters, diseases or old age, while some grieve husbands who have simply “disappeared.”
The UN has said that often, widows are treated as “invisible women,” discrimination that can be fatal. We were moved by the account of a woman in Nepal — Santu Kamari Maharjan, 55 — who told Womankind Worldwide how she has faced decades of discrimination while struggling to support her family since she was widowed at age 32. Maharjan said that after an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, she lost her house and belongings, yet was blocked from seeking food aid and other vital resources.
She said: “Everything I owned was gone in seconds. I didn’t have any income after the earthquake. All of the villages collected food and shared it around. The relief efforts giving out materials prioritized the people who could go out and speak, mainly men. Single women couldn’t go, we weren’t allowed to ask for what we needed. If a woman is single, she will be told to keep quiet because she doesn’t have a husband.”
International Widows’ Day is a call for global action to support policies, programs and resources to end all kinds of violence against widows and to restore their right to a life of human dignity, including economic independence. We must uphold widows’ right of inheritance and their right to start new lives through job training, substantial loans to launch businesses, access to health care and scholarships to benefit their children’s education.
As steering committee members of Every Woman Treaty — a campaign for global treaty — we’re part of a coalition of women’s rights advocates in 128 countries, calling for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls. Such a treaty would create a binding standard on ending the harmful practices imposed on widows, so women like Santu can get the resources they need to sustain their families and to rebuild their lives.
Widows lose much more than a spouse; they need much more than words of sympathy. Widows need global action.
Eleanor Nwadinobi, president of the Widows Development Organisation in Nigeria, is a medical doctor and expert on issues of gender, health and human rights. Meera Khanna is a social activist, writer and a trustee of Guild for Service, a nongovernment organization empowering marginalized women across India. She has served on two expert committees on widows, on the Supreme Court of India and the National Commission for Women. She also serves on the civil society advisory group for the UN Women office for India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan.