International Widows Day - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 6:32 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I am pleased to participate in this debate on widows, intended to mark International Widows Day. The term “widow” has different meanings in different cultures. Broadly, there is a sharp divide between the modern world and the pre-modern world. In the modern world, a widow is simply a woman who has lost her husband—full stop. Nothing changes about her status. She can continue to do the things she used to be able to do. There are no restrictions on what she may or may not do.

In pre-modern society the situation is very different. A widow is not somebody who has merely lost her husband; she has also lost her social status. It is social death. She may not wear colourful clothes, visit a religious temple or eat certain kinds of food. She must be ghettoised and isolated from certain functions. In other words, being a widow in a pre-modern society is a social identity, scripted very heavily by society. The first thing that therefore must be done if we are to do anything about widows in pre-modern societies is to change this notion of widowhood as a status and turn it into a condition of life. It is not one that has to bear the burden of duties and obligations; it is simply a condition of life that one has lost one’s husband.

To deal with the problems of widows in developing countries, the first question is how we deal with the stigma—the violence and isolation the woman suffers. Here, one of the most important things one has to do is think in terms of women’s education so that they begin to think of their own dignity and pride, to demand certain kinds of rights and do not allow them to be taken away. It is also a function when you are fighting a cultural construct—a whole culture bears down on a woman. How do you fight a culture? You transform it. As my noble friend Lord Bragg will bear out, you do that by telling stories, not only about the widow’s suffering but about her talents and the kind of things she can do, so that one begins to see the widow not merely as an object of pity and suffering, but as somebody who has her own hopes and ambitions, and can do the sort of things other women can do.

This is the first thing any Government intending to improve the condition of widows should do. Another is tonsure that widows and women in general have equal rights, not only to property but to custody of their children. If they do not, widowhood becomes an occasion when somebody who has a claim on a family property is quietly removed and the property goes to others. The second thing is therefore to insist on equality of rights and of treatment in general.

Thirdly, one should not merely give handouts—that is not the way to do things. Give her employment, because employment is a capacity-building activity. It gives her pride and dignity. It enables her to build up a network of social contacts, and to go out and meet people and share her joys and sorrows. The most important thing, therefore, is to give her employment. This capacity-building activity is far more important than handing out so many pounds or rupees.

Fourthly, one has to help widows secure employment with a kind of preferential treatment in jobs and higher education. It happens in India and in other countries. I do not see why it cannot be generalised. A widow applying for a job ought to be able to get an extra point, just as the Americans do when an applicant is black. If widowhood is taken as a factor in deciding whether someone gets a job—likewise if a woman, after having become a widow, wants to go to university or college—she might be given preferential entry. That makes this task much easier.

Finally, in any society concerned to improve the condition of women, there has to be a state agency—a government agency that takes full responsibility for the condition of women and carries out a kind of “widow impact analysis” to see how government policies and actions impact on a widow. According to UN Women, there are 285 million widows in the world today. Half a million are to be found in Afghanistan. According to the latest report, which came out in India only two days ago, there are 56 million widows in India—7.4% of the population. Out of 285 million widows in the world, 150 million live in deep poverty, and 40% of the 187 countries surveyed do not grant women equal rights. We are talking not about isolated pockets of poverty, but about systemic groups of millions of human beings in acute poverty and suffering. That is the problem we ought to be tackling.