This first International Widows' Day is an occasion to call attention to the many “firsts” that women must face when their husbands die. In addition to coping with grief, they may find themselves for the first time since marriage without any social safety net. Far too often, widows lack access to inheritance, land tenure, employment and even the means to survive.
In places where a widow's status is linked to her husband, she may find herself suddenly shunned and isolated. Marriage –whether she desires it or not –may be the only way for a widow to regain her footing in society.
Of the approximately 245 million widows in our world, more than 115 million live in extreme poverty. In countries embroiled in conflicts, women are often widowed young and must bear the heavy burden of caring for their children amid fighting and displacement with no help or support.
Some of these widows are teenagers –or even younger. The death of their husbands can leave a terrible legacy these widows must endure throughout their remaining years.
All widows should be protected by the rights enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other international human rights treaties.
But in reality, interpretations of customary codes, as well as traditional mourning and burial rites, often deny widows virtually all of their universally recognized rights.
Despite the many difficulties widows face, many make valuable contributions to their countries and communities. Some take on leadership roles at the highest levels. Others work in their families, taking in orphans, serving as caregivers and reaching across lines of conflict to mend tears in the social fabric.
We must recognize the important contribution of widows, and we must ensure that they enjoy the rights and social protections they deserve.
Death is inevitable, but we can reduce the suffering that widows endure by raising their status and helping them in their hour of need. This will contribute to promoting the full and equal participation of all women in society. And that will bring us closer to ending poverty and promoting peace around the world.