International Widows Day - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Liberal Democrat 6:25 pm, 19th June 2019

Noble Lords, I welcome—on behalf of us all, I am sure—the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, whose deep and enduring love and filial respect for his widowed mother has resulted in his caring for thousands of widows in the latter part of her life and hundreds of thousands of widows following her death. I salute him as a truly noble character with a record of magnificent achievement. I came to know the Loomba Foundation through my own work for widows with the AMAR foundation, which I chair. We have worked together for a little while now. I am so grateful to the noble Lord.

There are over 40 million widows in India, in a population of 1 billion. Widows in Iraq, where I and my AMAR colleagues work, now number 2 million in a population of fewer than 35 million citizens and refugees. Orphans in Iraq number around 5 million. War brings widows and makes children orphans. As Macduff remarked in “Macbeth” as he was approaching the final battle:

“Each new morn

New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows

Strike heaven on the face”.

The vulnerability and dependence that widows fear is well expressed by the Countess in “All’s Well That Ends Well” as her son goes off to war:

“In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband”.

I think that is why the seventh of the acts of mercy states:

“Comfort the fatherless and the widow”.

That is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, does.

What are the key requirements he and others have identified for assisting widows and orphans? One, of course, is the law, which fits us very well in this Chamber. I was invited by the US Department of State to go and discuss the Magna Carta. I was the sixth speaker of seven. The remaining speakers were from the USA, and were very eminent and able people. I was invited to talk about the rights of women in the Magna Carta and had a lot of trouble with that. The rights of women are contained in articles 7 and 8 and are entirely about how to stop the King grabbing widows’ inheritances so that the barons could marry them and have the inheritances themselves. It was a tough hurdle. Of course, it reminds one that inheritance for women, particularly widows, is very difficult indeed.

Then there is the question of family health. Of all health service users globally, 80% are women. How do widows and their families get access to that, or to literacy and numeracy education—at least for the children if not the widows—without the funding?

Widows need money: they are not allowed to inherit and cannot work. Here I draw noble Lords’ attention to the great benefits of huge companies practising corporate social responsibility. For example, I worked with BP in Iraq. Corporate social responsibility there is the most amazing thing.

There is the recovery of any family to consider, which matters so deeply to widows and orphans. Bodies—even in mass graves—and knowing what happened are critical after losing family. I am working with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on its ancestry programme, which it offers to help people in refugee camps and displaced people, particularly the Yazidis. We hope to build up their ancestries again, even those that are lost. It is better to know what the pattern of your family has been.

It is hard to empower widows and orphans. Yes, we can give love and care in the context of value, but we need to value them as citizens and people to be listened to, respected and involved. I therefore suggest that our key topic is how to empower. The first thing must surely be identity in law and in the real population. How do we give the IDPs and the below-the-line population, for example, who might not officially exist at all, an identity and legal persona? In Turkey, together with Mrs Özal, the widow of the great President Özal, I formed the Daisy charity for people just below the line, whose marriages were not recognised by the state. They were purely Muslim marriages and divorces. That meant the children did not exist as people at all. They therefore could not get help or education. Their plight was bad indeed.

The right to vote, the right to stand for election and the right to run for office: all these rights to be a person with full identity in your society are crucial and give you the right to help and education. I and other noble Lords and noble Baronesses work on the right to physical integrity—in other words, the right not to be raped. One of the great difficulties when you are a widow is the right not to have to go on to the streets to save your life and feed your babies. All these rights should be enshrined in the law of the land, even if it is only by the ratification of the relevant UN conventions. This is what government is for. This is exactly what our Government strive to do and what I urge them to focus on even more—the rights to identity through all these opportunities.

Finally, there are the acts of mercy: comfort the fatherless and the widow. Most wonderfully, I had experience of that this week with BBC South West, with Jon Kay, Andy Alcroft, Kirsty Gardner and Alex Littlewood. They recovered the mother of a young man, to whom I was originally in loco parentis—I was his foster mother—after 30 years. If that can be done by private initiative, by the BBC, what more could we do to bring families together?