More than victims

RayCollins.jpgRay Collins on removing the stigma and barriers of widowhood, and the violence it can bring

In every society, women have endured exclusion from their communities and families, and suffered the loss of their homes, livelihoods, and identities through an event completely out of their control—the death of their life partner. Since however, International Widows Day was adopted by the United Nations in 2010, we now have the opportunity to focus on action and bring the often invisible issues affecting widows to wider, international attention.

50 years ago my own mother was left a widow with four dependent children. We lived in a house tied to my father’s job, and in a very short period she not only had to cope with her grief but the loss also of our home, family income and status. Her determination to keep us together meant facing a court hearing to be rehoused following our eviction as well as quickly finding a job to maintain a household. In the decades that have passed since, we have seen progress in this country, with legislation for equal pay and against sex discrimination. But widows in the west still face social isolation and commonly live with severe insecurity and poverty due to lack of employment.

Of course, persecution and abuse goes much wider. Global research, commissioned by the Loomba Foundation in 2009, revealed there were 245 million widows and over 500 million children suffering in silence around the world. Over 100 million widows live in poverty struggling to survive, and they and many of their children are malnourished, exposed to disease and subject to slavery. Plus there are more widows than ever before, due to armed conflict, AIDS, and the age difference between partners – with many young women being married off to much older men.

When marking this year’s International Widows Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the need for “stronger action to empower women, promote gender equality and end all forms of violence against women”. Violence against women is one of the most widespread violations of human rights, affecting women of all backgrounds, ages, cultures and countries. Widows are no exception and may in fact be at particularly high risk.

The lack of reliable hard data remains one of the major obstacles to developing the policies and programmes to address these problems. More research and statistics disaggregated by marital status, sex and age are needed to help reveal incidences of widow abuse and illustrate their situation. Alongside this, access to adequate healthcare, education, decent work, full participation in decision-making and public life, and lives free of violence and abuse, would give them a chance to build a secure life after bereavement. Importantly, creating opportunities for widows can also help to protect their children and avoid the cycle of inter-generational poverty and deprivation.

Governments around the world must do more, both separately and together, to erase the stigma of widowhood, the barriers widows face to resources and economic opportunities to survive, and the high risk to widows of sexual abuse and exploitation. I know from personal experience that widows are more than victims: they are mothers, caregivers and heads of households. And they are also drivers of change with their own aspirations and voices that need to be heard. 

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow DfID Minister in the House of Lords

Published 30th June 2014

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