My Lords, it is a pleasure to be taking part in this debate today and I thank the noble Baroness for ensuring that we have the opportunity to speak ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow.
We are all aware that women all over the world face a huge number of problems, including violence, sexual harassment, abortion laws, pay and pension gaps, FGM, trafficking, modern slavery and other human rights violations. However, there is one issue that has not been highlighted much, and that is that of widows. I declare my interest as the founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation.
There are estimated to be 258 million widows around the world. Sadly, their number is increasing every day due to conflicts in many countries, including Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and, more recently, Venezuela and some South American countries. Widows and their daughters in conflict zones face extremes of abuse and violence, including sexual violence. Both conflict-afflicted mothers and daughters are vulnerable to traffickers, sexual slavery, forced “temporary remarriage” and modern-day slavery.
Then there is the question of “half widows”. There are uncounted millions of wives of men forcibly disappeared or missing. In Colombia 86,000 are missing, and in Sri Lanka 40,000. In Syria and Iraq there are uncounted missing husbands, sons and brothers. In so many conflict zones men go missing or lie unidentified in mass graves. These women are in limbo, unable to have any closure, their status so ambiguous.
These women, widows, half widows and their daughters need help if we want to achieve gender equality as well as the sustainable development goals by 2030. I was extremely pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Bates, called a meeting in his office last month, inviting a few organisations that work for widows to discuss and understand the problems that widows face across the world, especially in developing countries. It was a constructive meeting and I truly appreciate the initiative taken by him.
Gender balance is not just a theme but a way of life that we should all aspire to achieve around the world. We need to make an extra effort in developing countries and fragile states suffering from conflict where the input into civil life from the female population is often very limited. Empowerment of women, especially marginalised widows who are doubly discriminated against, will not only help them but improve the lives of many more people in their communities who are living through conflict and strife.
I urge the Minister to set up a specialist unit in the Department for International Development to focus on widows and their issues. We really need to address this issue and to provide skills training to widows and their unmarried daughters so that they can become self-reliant, earn money, educate their children, support their family and lead a life of dignity and equality.