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Millions of widows, of all ages, from child widows, to young women and young mothers, older women and elderly grandmothers, including the “half-widows” (wives of the missing or forcibly disappeared), have for decades suffered extreme, systematic and widespread discrimination and abuse, at the hands of community and family as well as state actors.
Few developing and fragile and conflict-afflicted countries have reliable data on the numbers of widows, or have attempted to identify and respond to their needs or recognise their central social and economic roles as carers and mothers, and within their communities. This failure to gather data to expose the abuse and discrimination of widows is itself a form of discrimination that needs to be addressed. They are effectively invisible. This invisibility has impacts on all of society and its future, because in all countries widowhood extends and increases poverty and inequality across the generations, and blocks the full achievement of the SDGs and the 2030 agenda. It also denies the restorative justice to which war widows should have a right.
Widows are also invisible internationally. Despite the fact that 187 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), discrimination against widows has been ignored.
Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD), the international NGO that is the umbrella for many widows’ organisations across the world, is now requesting that CEDAW develop a General Recommendation on widows, so that every member state reporting to it is made accountable for failure to address the specific forms of discrimination that are routinely experienced by widows throughout the world.
I write this preface at a time when the numbers of widows of all ages are increasing at an exponential rate, not just as a result of conflicts, natural disasters, harmful traditional practices and the frequent age gap between marriage partners, but now also as a consequence of Covid-19, which is killing far more men than women. Many impoverished and marginalized widows are struggling to survive in refugee and IDP camps. Multiple forms of discrimination make them easy targets for economic and sexual exploitation.
In Africa, South Asia, parts of the Middle East and eastern Europe, women’s lawyer associations report that many of their cases relate to the denial of widows’ rights to inheritance, land and property ownership and custody of children. Few cases reach the courts, owing to corruption, cost, patriarchal bias, illiteracy, and fear of violence towards the litigant.
In July 2019, in response to our second report to the CEDAW on widowhood discrimination, WPD was encouraged to provide CEDAW with details of actual cases, names, dates, perpetrators, outcomes of legal cases and barriers to widows’ claiming their rights. We were told that what we needed was “evidence”, rather than narratives and anecdotes.
Fortunately, WPD was able to recruit Alice Lees to gather evidence for this project. Her work has involved outreach, research, identification of research groups and contact with widows’ groups. With her encouragement WPD’s partner organisations, underfunded and overstretched, have themselves worked with determination to provide case studies. We are confident that with this Dossier, CEDAW will have the evidence they need to move towards the development of a General Recommendation.
This dossier would not have been possible without the willingness of our partners to go the extra mile. We are very grateful to them. We wish especially to thank our donors, the Network for Social Change Charitable Foundation and the Robbins Family Trust for the generous support that has enabled us to undertake this project.
We aimed to complete this project by the end of May 2020, but examples of cases of widowhood discrimination are still coming in. WPD will keep this Dossier open, and we welcome all examples of widowhood discrimination so that, with the strength of CEDAW to support them, widows everywhere may look forward to a life without fear, enjoying empowerment and equality, justice, and peace.
Margaret Owen O.B.E.
President of WPD