My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for bringing forward this debate today, to highlight the important issue of widows in developing countries and to mark International Widows Day this year.
I pay tribute to a friend and colleague, Margaret Owen of Widows for Peace through Democracy, who, through many years of determined work and tireless campaigning, got this issue on to the international agenda. As we have already heard, in most developing countries a strong culture of patriarchy prevails, making it very difficult for women on their own. Widows suffer from multiple discrimination, and are too often victimised and abused. While women are often the poorest in a society, widows are the poorest of the poor, and widowhood is one of the most neglected of all the human rights and gender issues. This hardship can affect future generations as family stability is destroyed. Through resulting poverty, widowhood is a driver for children to be taken out of school and girls to be married at a very early age, thus perpetuating a life of underachievement and a lack of empowerment for the next generation. In these countries there is no mechanism for the voices of widows to be heard, or recognition of their struggles as sole parents and breadwinners.
Here in the UK we tend to think of widows as being older, but all the chaos and turmoil of armed conflicts, civil wars, revolutions and natural disasters of recent years has created millions of widows and wives of the disappeared, who become the most vulnerable in their societies. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, I have visited Srebrenica and walked with the widows in the graveyard. It was absolutely unforgettable; their pain was palpable. The number of widows in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Congo has soared. The widows in these countries are often forced to beg—burka-clad widows on the roads in Afghanistan, or destitute widows in Congo trying to scratch a living, pushed to the side of society, remaining voiceless and invisible.
In some cultures, women cannot own property, land, bank accounts or even a job. How are widows meant to fare then? In some developing countries, where good national laws are introduced to tackle these injustices, the laws are not accessible to many as local justice prevails at the grassroots. So often, in spite of constitutional guarantees of equality, women are deprived of their legal rights to inheritance, land and property, and turned out of their homes because law reforms are not implemented. In some cases widows become victims of forced marriage, made to marry relatives of their deceased husbands.
There are no accurate statistics but, in 2017, UN Women estimated that there were 285 million widows globally. Lack of data, especially in war-torn countries, is a huge obstacle to influencing Governments to address the issue of widowhood and ensure that they receive adequate support. To help focus on this important gendered issue, perhaps we should encourage the creation of a UN special rapporteur on widowhood, which might bring adequate focus to bear. In the UK, we could consider that our next national action plan on UNSCR 1325 might include issues of widowhood in the targets and indicators.
Conflict, as we have already heard, creates thousands of “disappeared” men and, thus, half-widows. Men go off to fight; some just never return and there is no information about what happened to them or their whereabouts. Wives may wait many years in limbo without adequate support and never know whether their partners are dead or alive. I hope the House will forgive me if I speak from personal experience. My own mother was such a widow here in World War II. At the age of 22, she received a telegram saying that her pilot husband was missing, presumed dead, and she waited 10 years for him to return before giving up hope. It was always something that remained unsolved in her life, until about 15 years ago when she discovered what had happened by somehow managing to get hold of the Luftwaffe records of the pilot who had shot him down out at sea. Even the British Government never helped to find out what had happened to the missing after World War II.
On International Widows Day, we should not forget the situation in the UK where it is estimated that 500 women a day become widows, the majority by the age of 85. Here in the UK, where we have no culture of respect for the elderly, many of these women suffer from traditional discrimination and poverty. Many do not have good pensions; in rural communities, this can lead to widows becoming even more isolated and depressed when they are no longer able to drive, especially where rural bus services have been slashed.
We should not forget the widows of our brave military killed in action. There are still widows alive from World War II, and the recent actions, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, have created a significant number of widows. Do we have any idea how they fare and whether they feel adequately looked after? Could some study be carried out in the UK to look at the plight of widows here too?
In conclusion, widowhood is a much ignored issue both in the UK and in developing countries. However, it is more than just a gender issue; it affects all of society and its future since widows’ marginalisation and poverty affects the lives of their children. Will the UK consider asking the UN to appoint a special rapporteur on widowhood as a means of lifting the blanket of silence and invisibility from this very important gender and human rights issue?