My Lords, I am pleased to hold this debate supporting widows ahead of the ninth UN-recognised International Widows Day, and here I declare an interest as founder, chairman and trustee of the Loomba Foundation. International Widows Day is a day of effective action for widows around the world, which was ratified by the United Nations at its 65th General Assembly in 2010. In his message on the first International Widows Day, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that it was,
“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 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 … 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 … 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”.
Since then, International Widows Day has gone from strength to strength as a platform on which to advocate for better treatment of widows but, at a time when global acknowledgement of their suffering is gathering pace, awareness of their plight is still very low and they put up with daily injustices. According to the World Widows Report by the Loomba Foundation, published in 2015, globally there are 259 million widows with 584 million children. The latest data from UN Women shows that the number of widows is increasing, and with that comes more suffering.
Even while there is greater recognition of inhumane behaviour towards women on the deaths of their husbands, widows still face an uphill struggle for their voices to be heard and for justice and fairness in their lives. Widows endure daily obstacles and are at the forefront of gender discrimination as they face double discrimination. They are liable to have their land and property taken away from them, and they suffer sexual abuse and even rape. Many cultural practices blame widows for the deaths of their husbands, and they face stigma and ostracisation from their communities.
In Africa, issues affecting widows are still widespread despite laws that are meant to protect them. The way they are treated can be described only as inhumane. Sexual cleansing via rape, physical violence and losing their inheritance and possessions is rife throughout the continent. All around the world there are “half widows”, women whose husbands are unaccounted for. Those men are more than likely to be dead, but their bodies have not been recovered. If we do not stop these harmful and degrading cultural practices and human rights abuses against widows, we will fail in our attempts to achieve the sustainable development goals. If these obstacles are not removed, and widows are not empowered to live their lives free from injustice, we cannot possibly hope to accomplish the global mission of 50:50 by 2030.
I am proud that there are more and more organisations fighting to help widows lead a better life. These organisations have steadily grown over the years and, like the Loomba Foundation, they have certainly made inroads, but they need more assistance from Governments as they need access to more funds. For instance, Kenya is organising an event to mark International Widows Day, and the theme is “Skills Training for Widows—Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals”. More than 3,000 widows will be in attendance at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre with the chief guest, the President of Kenya. We have also received information from many other countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, Nepal, Bangladesh, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Guatemala, Chile and India, which are marking International Widows Day to raise awareness of this social evil and help widows.
The United Nations sustainable development goals include a number of areas that can have a dramatic effect on helping widows to lead better lives—for example, gender equality, education, eliminating poverty, and peace. DfID’s goals align with those of the United Nations. Tackling poverty is one of its key priorities. Poverty is the root cause of many issues and is certainly a major factor when it comes to widows.
Preventing violence against girls and women is another key area of focus for DfID. Violence against widows, which happens all too often, includes physical abuse and rape. The latter is employed in Africa to “cleanse” widows. Imagine losing your husband and then having to go through this ritual so that any bad omens are removed. These women are also blamed for the deaths of their husbands, so they also have to endure physical violence and verbal abuse.
Many Governments, including the United Kingdom’s, have so far failed to widely acknowledge that widowhood is an urgent human rights issue around the world. Widows barely get a mention by government Ministers, MPs or even DfID. Awareness is one of the areas that we struggle with. We need all the help we can get to let people know what these poor women go through. Marking International Widows Day more prominently every year would certainly aid our work. More importantly, more money would filter down to help widows.
DfID needs to aim more aid and policies at helping widows. Widows are at or near the bottom of the social and economic scale, so helping them helps to reduce extreme poverty, as set out by the United Nations sustainable development goals. The programmes in which I and many widow organisations around the world are involved seek to provide skills training to make widows economically self-sufficient. We try to be as effective as possible with the funds at our disposal. While these programmes do not solve every problem that widows face, they are major stepping stones on their roads to recovery.
How will the Minister increase awareness of International Widows Day? Will the UK Government or DfID organise events like the one in Kenya this year? Will DfID consider setting up a Select Committee on widows? Will the UK Government request the United Nations to set up a special rapporteur for widows? Will DfID consider earmarking funds to help widows in developing countries?