The New York Times December 2007
"Only with determination and courage will we be able to save widows and their families from lives of stigma, harassment and humiliation. "
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Like many people nowadays, I’m the product of a single-parent family. My sister and I were brought up by my mother after my father deserted us when we were young. It must have been very tough for my mother but we children thrived because of a huge amount of support from a big extended family.
When I reflect on the plight of millions of widows across the world, I realize just how fortunate we were. Although we were surrounded by love, widows and their children in many societies are shunned, abused and exploited.
The centuries-old practice of suttee — a widow burning herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre — has all but vanished. But the few cases of self-immolation that do occur are a reminder of how bleak the future is for many widows. After a shocking case just five years ago in rural India, a sociologist in Delhi, Susan Visvanathan, explained that the widow who set herself on fire “would have assumed her life would be one of isolation and despair and shame and suffering.”
In rural areas of Nepal and India, widows may still be expected to shave their heads, sleep on the floor and hide from men for the rest of their lives.
In Afghanistan, where two million women have lost their husbands in decades of fighting, widows are prevented from working and have no way to provide for their children. In Tanzania, among other countries, the legal system makes it difficult for widows to inherit their husband’s property.
The result is that many widows and their children are kicked out of their homes, forced to live in abject poverty on the fringes of society, and are prey to abuse, violence and sexual exploitation. With no money to pay for education, the children of widows are pulled out of school. With no education, these children are doomed to spend their lives in the most menial of jobs, if they can find work at all.
This is a huge problem. In India alone, there are estimated to be some 30 million widows struggling to bring up children. Across the developing world, there may be as many as 100 million in a perilous state. Conflict, ethnic cleansing and AIDS are increasing these numbers by the day and creating younger widows. In countries where disease or conflict are most rife, half of all women can be impoverished widows.
Given the scale and nature of this injustice, it’s disturbing that this problem has remained largely invisible. Statistics are too often not kept by national governments. And despite the United Nations’ welcome focus on tackling global poverty and gender inequality, there is no specific mention of widows in its Millennium Development Goals — an oversight that makes it that much more difficult for the international campaign to work.
Improving the situation of widows and their children, however, won’t be easy. A much greater effort is needed from national governments, including, where necessary, an overhaul of legislation to protect the inheritance rights of widows. It would help as well, where possible, to raise the minimum age for marriage. Children of 14 or even younger should not be married off to men as many as 40 years older, not least because they will soon join the ranks of widows.
Governments must be prepared as well to stand up to cultural pressures, however strong, to enforce existing legislation. Many of the countries where widows are treated worst have good laws in place to protect them. The problem is that they are routinely ignored by local communities and seldom enforced.
Any government efforts will have to go hand in hand with a sustained education campaign, letting women know their rights, explaining to local elders the legal protections that exist and informing communities of the long-term damage these injustices are causing to the health and wealth of their societies.
In the end, it is not just widows who lose out because of this damaging prejudice and discrimination. We all do. Only with determination and courage will we be able to save widows and their families from lives of stigma, harassment and humiliation.