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Shining a Light on the Plight of Widows and their Families

UN Diwali Speech - New York October 2007

"What could be more universal and eternal than a celebration of the victory of darkness over light, of good over evil."

I am delighted to be here tonight among so many friends of the Loomba Trust for this joint celebration of our 10th anniversary and the great festival of Diwali.

It is extraordinary what the Trust has achieved in the last 10 years - and Raj and Veena and all of you whose generosity and support has made this possible - can take immense pride in the progress there has been.

It’s fitting, too, that we are also celebrating Diwali tonight.

It is a festival of great importance across southern Asia and, of course, now across the world.

Back home in the United Kingdom, the Festival of Lights is now very much part of our national calendar, increasingly celebrated by people of all backgrounds and faiths.

I think this is wonderful.

For what could be more universal and eternal than a celebration of the victory of darkness over light, of good over evil.

I know, too that part of the rich story of diwali is the slaying of ancient demons.

And it is the slaying of the modern demons of prejudice and injustice against widows which led to the setting up of the Loomba Trust.

The life of a widow is, of course, rarely easy.

They have lost their soul mate. Frequently they are left to bring up children on their own.

Too many have to cope with financial worries on top of grief and loneliness.

Whether here in the States, back home in the UK or across Europe, widows are often among the poorest in our societies and most in need of more support and help.
But in many parts of the world, widows are not just denied the support they need but suffer the most appalling treatment and discrimination.

They are abused, exploited, isolated, pushed to the very fringes of society.

In rural areas of Nepal and India, widows may still be expected to shave their heads, sleep on the floor, wear dark clothing and hide from men for the rest of their lives.

In Afghanistan, where decades of fighting have left two million widows, female illiteracy and cultural pressures prevent widows joining the workforce, leaving them no way of supporting themselves or their children.

Across Africa and Asia, widows are denied or cheated out of their husband’s assets and property.

The result is that they, and their children, are kicked out of their family home, forced to live in abject poverty, shunned by their community, prey to the worst kind of abuse, violence and sexual exploitation.

And such appalling treatment entrenches the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

With no money, the children are pulled out of school.

With no education, they are doomed to spend their lives in the most menial of jobs if in work at all.

And this is a huge problem. In India alone, there are some 30 million widows struggling to bring up children with very little state help.

Across the developing world, there may be 100 million widows and four times as many children suffering such abuse.

And conflict, HIV/AIDs and ethnic cleansing are some of the factors increasing these numbers daily - and also creating widows younger.

And yet this is a scandal which remains largely hidden.

But if we are to tackle global poverty and the shameful waste of gender inequality, then focussing on the plight of widows and their families is essential.

And one of the ways we can do this is by an International Widows Day which, by turning the spotlight on the scale of the problems, can help us find the courage and commitment to tackle them.

As many of you will know, it was the Loomba Trust which first floated the idea of an International Widows Day which it marks on June 23.

The idea has quickly taken off with countries as far apart as Nepal and Nigeria adopting it as their own.

What I find exciting is to learn that the United Nations itself sees real merit in the idea and there are moves afoot to adopt it formally through the General Assembly.

I really do hope this goes ahead.

The UN is a wonderful organisation with a marvellous record in tackling injustice.

I can think of few better ways of marking the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights next year than for the UN to put itself at the head of the international campaign to rid the world of the prejudice faced by widows and their children.

Thank you