June 23, A Day for Invisible Women

Authored by  Rubee B Das

‘It can be said that there is no group more affected by the sin of omission than widows. They are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last 25 years.’ (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 2001)

Referring to the absence of research into the lives of widows, Eileen Stillwaggon, a development researcher poignantly expressed, ‘The less you find, the more telling it becomes about a much undervalued population.’ (1 1 R.F. Harma’s written communication with Stillwaggon, 2009., “World Widow Report”)

The Loomba Foundation,UK in collaboration with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office held an international conference on widows in London in 2006. In 2008 the foundation commissioned a research survey facilitated by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London which was conducted by World Public Opinion. The survey on perceptions of societies’ treatment of widows across was carried in 17 developed and developing countries. It concluded that , ‘The failure to focus on the conditions in which widows live in many different cultures and countries is particularly reprehensible considering the seriousness of the deprivation suffered, and how badly it affects their welfare and that of their children.’ (WWR)

Image: Maulee Seanapati
Image: Maulee Seanapati

The loss of the marital partner through death invariably entails several changes and for many women the loss does not just mean the heartache of losing a husband, but often losing everything. That loss is magnified by a long-term struggle for their basic needs, their human rights and dignity as ‘widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property grabbed after the death of the husband and they can be vulnerable to extreme stigma and discrimination’ (World widow Report), depending upon the culture and country they belong to. The struggle is harder if the dead spouse was the primary breadwinner.

‘In a wide range of societies widowhood has been recognized as a particular hazard for women.’ (Wilson 2000: 126) To draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need, the United Nations observes June 23 as International Widows Day since 2011.  International Widows Day was an initiative of The Loomba Foundation to raise awareness on the issue of widowhood. June 23 was the day in 1954 when Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, mother of the foundation’s founder, Lord Loomba(Raj Loomba), became a widow. One of the key goals of the foundation is to call attention to what it describes as “A Hidden Calamity” in one of its studies. Lord Loomba and the foundation’s president, Cherie Blair launched the first International Widows Day in 2005.

Image: Maulee Seanapati

A study titled as, Invisible, Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows Around the World, an initiative of the Loomba Foundation was presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2010 as part of its awareness campaign. The book reveals that there are 245 million widows worldwide, 115 million of whom live in poverty and suffer from social stigmatisation and economic deprivation purely because they have lost their husbands.

June 23 was formally adopted as International Widows Day, a day of  observance by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2010 to give special attention to the situation of widows and their children by the United Nation’s Member States.  International Widows Day is a day of action to highlight and combat discrimination, poverty and injustice suffered by millions of widows and their dependents.

International Widows Day is an opportunity to create awareness in communities and engage governments in developing effective policies. It is also an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows which includes ‘providing them with information on access to a fair share of their inheritance, land and productive resources; pensions and social protection that are not based on marital status alone; decent work and equal pay; and education and training…(WWR).

The actual number of widows worldwide will be much higher than the estimated 258 million by now and nearly one in ten of that population live in extreme poverty. The term ‘widow’ or ‘widows’ in the World Widow Report refers not only to married women who have lost their husband but also, where appropriate, to women who were not formally married and whose partner has died.

Women are perpetually worse affected largely because of the gender construction of society.  ‘A wide range of patriarchal institutions, most particularly patrilineal inheritance, patrilocal residence and the gendered division of labour in a society, which affect all women, also affect widows and make their situation much more difficult than that for widowed men.’(Chandrasekhar,C.P, Ghosh, J. 2017) This has also been found worldwide that women are much less likely to have access to old age pensions than men. Hence, the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women.

There are more than 55 million widows in India and the gender dimensions of above factors are much stronger in India than in most other countries. Widows in India are disproportionately represented in the statistics of destitute and unfortunately they also tend to face many difficulties and deprivations because of negative social attitudes towards them. ‘They are subject to patriarchal customs, religious laws and widespread discrimination in inheritance rights. Many suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of family members, often in the context of property disputes.’ (Chandrasekhar,C.P, Ghosh, J. 2017)

Most women are denied the automatic rights over the property of the dead spouse which invariably forces them to rely on the largesse of inheriting children. Although significant attention has been paid to women’ needs and rights already, more still needs to be done to fully understand the challenges posed by abrupt changes in status forced by widowhood. As women they have specific needs, but their voices and experiences are often absent from policies that impact their survival. Considering the implicated numbers the public policies in India should be made by giving prominence to the specific problems of widows that has largely been ignored so far and that is required not just for the women concerned but for society in general.

The post COVID 19 ‘build back better’ strategies as envisaged for a sustainable world will require many such inclusive policies. The number of widows is likely to grow further as the coronavirus and its related effects on health continue to rage around the world. According to a Loomba Foundation estimation around 100000 women are widowed by COVID 19 all over the world.

We are yet to know about India’s plight. There are a sizable number of widows in Assam as a result of insurgency and armed conflicts for more than three decades, communal clashes and also for perennial floods and erosion and the subsequent displacements etc. Wasbir Hussain, the writer of ‘Homemakers without the Man: Assam’s Widows of Violence’ expressed in an interview, ‘we expect that the society will provide a cushion to the widows, but it is not so in reality.  Irrespective of socio-economic condition each and every widow fights her own battle.’

The existing social protection schemes for widows are nothing but peanuts. The impromptu announcement of financial assistance like The Indira Miri Universal Widow Pension Scheme are not going to be very beneficial if sustained other empowering assistance is not provided to widows.

In the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows here may not have access to bank accounts and pensions to pay for healthcare or to support themselves and their children. The lone-mother families and single older women who are particularly vulnerable to poverty already need urgent attention. Governments must provide immediate support, while working to revamp social and economic structures in the long-term.

The statement for International Widows Day by Phumzile MIambo-Ngcuka, UN Women, emphasizes that in addition to legal reform to ensure that widows have equal inheritance and property rights in time, we need to see fiscal stimulus programmes that support widows and older single women economically. The social assistance programmes such as cash transfers and social pensions should be expanded and these benefits must be accessible even to those without bank accounts. It is critical to keep civil society, in particular grassroots and community-based groups in the loop and invest in their work that can provide widows with vital support at the local level and challenge the discriminatory, sometimes deadly social norms that they face.

Widows must not be left out of our work to “build back better” from COVID-19. Let us ensure that our recovery prioritizes their unique needs and supports, societies to be more inclusive, resilient and equal for all.


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