International Widows Day at the UN

Yesterday was the first annual United Nations International Widows Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of widows around the world and taking action to help them.  The day was marked with a conference at the UN paneled by government representatives, directors of UN programs, and leaders of NGOs that are changing women’s lives.  International Widows Day, which will be commemorated every June 23rd, was established by UN Resolution 65/189, which was sponsored by Gabon and cosponsored by an additional fifty-six countries, thanks in large part to the extraordinary leadership of Gabonese First Lady Sylvia Bongo Ondimba.  The campaign to establish International Widows Day was begun five years ago by the Loomba Foundation, an organization that has in many ways pioneered widows’ rights.

Windows for Widows President Heather Ibrahim-Leathers and President of the Loomba Foundation and former First Lady of the UK Cherie Blair

The establishment of International Widows Day will shed light on the epidemic of widowhood, a humanitarian crisis that has gone unnoticed for far too long. Widows and their children make up 15% of the world’s population, making widowhood an epidemic in the truest sense of the word. Worldwide, there are 245 million widows, 115 million of whom live in extreme poverty, according to a 2010 study. They are faced with stigmatization, their relatives often blaming them for their husbands’ deaths. The collective imagination in many areas of the world associates them with bad luck and even witchcraft. Raj Loomba, who founded the Loomba Foundation in memory of his mother, recounted at the conference yesterday morning the story of how the priest officiating his wedding forced his mother to stay away from her own son’s ceremony because, being a widow, she would bring bad luck to his marriage. Hundreds of elderly women, primarily widows, are killed for practicing witchcraft each year in Tanzania according to a report submitted to the CEDAW Committee by HelpAge International in 2008. In other areas of the world, widows are subjected to grieving and funeral rites such as forced ‘purification’ through sexual violence, being ‘inherited’ by male relatives of their deceased husbands, head shaving, loss of freedoms and social status, and spoliation of their possessions. The incident of widowhood is often the catalyst for extreme poverty: in many countries, even where the law forbids it, male relatives of a widow’s deceased husband will chase her out of her house and seize her land, her possessions, and sometimes even her children. This sudden descent into poverty often forces widows to resort to begging and entering into dangerous sex work to support themselves and their families.

The more than 500 million children of widows worldwide are not only subject to kidnapping by their father’s relatives, but are deprived of schooling, health care, and proper nutrition because their mothers cannot afford to provide for them, continuing the cycle of poverty. 1.5 million of these children will die before their fifth birthday because their mothers cannot pay for health care. Extreme poverty also makes these children prime targets for human trafficking, with traffickers often tricking impoverished parents (frequently widows) into sending their children away to what they think will be a better life, when in fact these traffickers force children into sexual slavery, a phenomenon documented in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s excellent book, Half the Sky.

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers and Director of UN Women and former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet

In spite of these disturbing realities, the International Widows Day Conference at the UN yesterday morning gives us reason to be hopeful.  Among the inspiring speakers at this conference were First Lady of Gabon Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, whose foundation, the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation, is dedicated to helping vulnerable populations in Gabon, especially widows; Dr. Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; former First Lady of the United Kingdom Cherie Blair, who serves as President of the Loomba Foundation; Director of UN Women and former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet; President of Global Partnerships Forum Amir Dossal; Senior Policy Analyst forWomen for Women International Lyric Thompson; and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund Purnima Mane.

The speakers at yesterday morning’s conference shared many practical, actionable ideas to help widows around the world.  Dr. Hartmann emphasized the importance of establishing property rights for widows as well as rights to employment and self-employment, and Purnima Mane emphasized the importance of teaching widows how to advocate for their own rights and of strengthening judicial systems so that laws protecting widows are enforced.  Dr. Hartmann also emphasized the need for widows to have access to credit.  Microcredit has been proven to help lift women out of poverty, and their families too – Lyric Thompson pointed out that the World Bank found that women and girls reinvest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 30-40% that men reinvest in their families.  Many panelists emphasized the importance of helping widows pay for their children’s education, which will help break the cycle of poverty by giving children the knowledge and skills to support themselves financially.  Cherie Blair and Amir Dossal also stressed the importance of equality in marriage, so that women are prepared to support themselves financially after their husbands pass away.  All of the panelists emphasized the importance of bringing awareness to the plight of widowhood, a largely silent humanitarian crisis – as Purnima Mane eloquently put it, “widows’ rights are human rights.”

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund Purnima Mane

Windows for Widows is already acting on many of these suggestions in Egypt, the Dominican Republic, and soon Bolivia.  We provide funding to widows for urgent basic needs like medical procedures, medication, housing, and utilities.  Through our employment program, we train widows to enter the workforce, investing in basic literacy, math, and computer skills programs for them and teaching them marketable skills like sewing, embroidery, beadwork, and woodworking.  Through our partnerships, we can offer the widows we serve micro-loans to build businesses out of these skills.  We also create service based jobs for widows like childcare, elderly/hospice care, and housekeeping.  In the Dominican Republic, we developed a specialized program to fund salaries for widows at an orphanage full of children orphaned by the Haitian earthquake, providing the orphanage with critically necessary caregivers and teachers at the same time as we provide widows with jobs and income.  We also help widows educate their children, keeping their children safe in the short term and improving their job prospects in the long term so that they can break the cycle of poverty.  There are currently over 100 widows in our program, and yesterday’s conference inspired us to continue increasing our enrollment and expanding our programs.  Our work has only just begun.  We met and heard from so many inspiring leaders in widows’ rights at yesterday’s conference; with their leadership and the international community’s dedication, we can make a difference in widows’ lives around the world.