A woman ties a baby to her back as she gets ready to leave for work.
Hawa was pregnant when she lost her husband and the rest of her family in the fighting in the Central African Republic. She fled and crossed into Cameroon, becoming a refugee at the Gado camp, where she gave birth to Haphisi.
Photo:UN Women/Ryan Brown

Invisible Women, Invisible Problems

For many women around the world, the devastating loss of a partner is magnified by a long-term fight for their basic rights and dignity. Despite the fact that there are more than 258 million widows around the world, widows have historically been left unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in our societies.

Today, as armed conflicts, displacement and migration, and the COVID-19 pandemic leave tens of thousands of women newly widowed and many others whose partners are missing or disappeared, the unique experiences and needs of widows must be brought to the forefront, with their voices leading the way.

Experience from past pandemics, for example HIV/AIDS and Ebola, shows that widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property grabbed after the death of a partner, and can face extreme stigma and discrimination, as perceived ‘carriers’ of disease. Worldwide, women are much less likely to have access to old age pensions than men, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women. In the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows may not have access to bank accounts and pensions to pay for healthcare if they too become ill or to support themselves and their children. With lone-mother families and single older women already particularly vulnerable to poverty, this is an area that needs urgent attention.

On International Widows’ Day, 23 June, take a look at some of the issues affecting widows around the world and what must be done to safeguard and advance their rights.

Nicaraguan women

Problems for widows in developing countries

Towards Progress for Widows

The United Nations observes 23 June as International Widows Day (resolution A/RES/65/189) since 2011, to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need.

Now more than ever, this day is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows. This 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 opportunities. Empowering widows to support themselves and their families also means addressing social stigmas that create exclusion, and discriminatory or harmful practices.

Furthermore, Governments should take action to uphold their commitments to ensure the rights of widows as enshrined in international law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even when national laws exist to protect the rights of widows, weaknesses in the judicial systems of many States compromise how widows’ rights are defended in practice and should be addressed. Lack of awareness and discrimination by judicial officials can cause widows to avoid turning to the justice system to seek reparations.

Programmes and policies for ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages also need to be undertaken, including in the context of action plans to accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In post-conflict situations, widows should be brought in to participate fully in peacebuilding and reconciliation processes to ensure that they contribute to sustainable peace and security.

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

Did you know?

  • There are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, and nearly one in ten live in extreme poverty.
  • In some parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, it is reported that around 50 per cent of women are widows.
  • Widows are coerced into participating in harmful, degrading and even life-threatening traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites.

Source: The Loomba Foundation 2016

Related links

Documents and publications

Explainer

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International days and weeks are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool. We also mark other UN observances.