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Fighting Prejudice Against Widows

Speech on the 10th Anniversary of the Loomba Trust - Dehli, November 2007

"Widowhood is an invisible but huge problem not just in India but across the World."

I am thrilled to be here at this very important conference attended by such a distinguished audience.
I know what hectic and demanding lives you lead so I want to thank you warmly for finding the time to join us today.
There are so many people of expertise and achievement among you today that it seems almost unfair to single anyone out.
But if I would like to send particular thanks to Shri Vayalar Ravi, the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs for honouring us with his presence and, of course, to Richard Stagg, the British High Commissioner who will also be well-known to so many of you and who has been such a good friend of the Loomba Trust.
I said at the beginning that this is an important conference. I don`t use the word loosely.
There is simply no more important challenge for our ambition of building a fairer, more prosperous and peaceful world than giving women and children the fullest possible opportunity to make the most of their talents.
The challenge of empowering women and educating all our children - the very topic of this conference - is very dear to my heart.
It all helps explain why fighting for women’s and children’s rights is a major priority for me in my professional life as a working lawyer and in the personal campaigns and charities I support.
And it is, of course, why I am so delighted to have been involved with the Loomba Trust from its very beginning ten years ago.
As many of you will know, this wonderful charity was created by my dear friends Raj and Veena Loomba in memory of his mother who raised and educated her family single-handedly here in India following the death of her husband.
The Loomba Trust shows just what can be achieved with vision, energy and a willingness to work in partnership with all who share your goals.
In the last ten years, the Trust has combined concrete help to thousands of widows and their children with pushing the plight of widows high up national and international agendas.
Thanks to the Loomba Trust - and the generosity of its supporters - some 3,600 children of poor widows are being educated right across India at this moment.
The Trust operates in every state but is, of course, by no means limited to India.Similar projects are already up and running in South Africa, in Sri Lanka, in Kenya and Bangladesh and will be joined this year with new operations in Nepal and Uganda.
Much of this work is being done in partnership with state and national governments.
The latest example is in Raj’s home village of Dhilwan near Karpithala which we visited a few days ago and where the village school is to be totally renovated and refurbished in a project funded jointly by the Punjab Government and the Trust.
I also know how committed the Indian Government at a national level has been to tackling the many difficulties that widows face and in working with groups like the Trust dedicated to helping them and their families.
There is absolutely no doubt these efforts are needed. Widowhood is an invisible but huge problem not just here in India but across our world.
They find themselves abused, exploited and harassed for no other reason than they have lost their husbands and fathers.
They face prejudice, find themselves isolated and shunned and, all too frequently denied or cheated out of their husband’s inheritance.
As a result, millions of widows - and their children - find themselves kicked out of their homes, forced to live in abject poverty on the fringes of society, and prey to abuse, violence and sexual exploitation.
And this is a problem passed on through the generations.
With no money to pay for education, the children of widows are pulled out of school.
With no education, these children are doomed themselves to spend their lives in the most menial of jobs, if they can find work at all.
This disastrous cycle of disadvantage continues to deepen and expand unless people of good will step in.
And the scale of the problem is huge. In India alone, there are estimated to be some 33 million poor widows struggling to bring up children.
Across the developing world, there may be as many as 100 million in such a perilous state.
Nor is there any hope that these numbers are falling. Conflict, ethnic cleansing and AIDS are increasing numbers by the day.
In countries where disease or conflict are most rife, half of all women can be impoverished widows.
This is not just disastrous for the women themselves or their children. It is disastrous for our societies as this conference recognises.
Because no country can afford to discard the talents of such a large group of people.
I have seen myself how what a lift if gives to societies and economies when the barriers are removed which prevent women putting their talents and skills to the service of their community or stop them having a voice in their own lives.
It is women entrepreneurs, for example, who are now the driving force behind economic growth in Africa.
It is educating children - and girls in particular - which evidence shows is the best investment any country can make.
So there is a huge prize if we can tackle discrimination and prejudice against widows and their children.
We stop them, through no fault of their own, being a burden on society and turn them into active, productive and confident members of their communities. We all, in fact, benefit.
But to achieve this goal, we need not just Governments and charities like the Loomba Trust working together but all of us - and in particular companies.
The Loomba Trust has been especially fortunate in having the backing of far-sighted companies and individuals entrepreneurs including, of course, Sir Richard Branson.
Far-sighted businesses - and, of course, this means successful businesses - understand the importance of seeing beyond the bottom-line, of recognising that their customers are also members of communities.
They recognise the health and strength of these communities is of vital importance to them and put these goals at the heart of all they do.
We also, of course, need the full involvement of international bodies which is one of the reasons why the Trust is working so hard to secure the formal recognition of International Widows Day.
The Loomba Trust began marking International Widows Day on June 23 each year. The idea has quickly caught being already celebrated from Nigeria to Nepal.
We are now delighted to hear that the United Nations is actively considering giving its official backing to the date and day.
It would be a huge step, focusing the world’s attention on the problems widows face worldwide, improving the collection of information and galvanising action at national and international level.
It would be another success for the Loomba Trust but, above all, it would be another step towards a fairer deal for widows and their children and a fairer world for us all.
Thank you.

For more information about the Loomba Trust Click here