My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on securing this debate to mark International Widows Day this year, and on the work of his foundation promoting the cause of widows all around the world, especially in developing nations. As we have heard, the number of widows is quite staggering, and it is increasing sadly, largely due to conflict. The UN estimates that there are 285 million widowed women, of whom about a third live in deep poverty. The Loomba Foundation estimates that 585 million children are dependent on widows.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, in paying tribute to the work of Margaret Owen, the brilliant campaigner, through her charity Widows for Peace through Democracy, and also pay tribute to HelpAge International for its development work on behalf of older people, including many widows.
In my brief remarks, I will focus on older and half-widows. I was very moved to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, talking about the terrible situation in Kashmir. Other speakers have said that we should dispel the myth that widows are always older women. Many are of course very young indeed, though the problems faced by far too many—especially after war or any form of conflict—are very similar regardless of age.
Ongoing conflicts around the world cause widows to be deprived, as we have heard, of even their most basic rights to health, education and dignity. Even though they are the most affected by conflict, in almost all situations they still have no role in peacebuilding. They need to be represented at all peace tables. One of our roles is to work to ensure that this happens. Can the Minister reassure us that a huge effort is being made to ensure this is the case?
Widowhood should be addressed by the Government as an urgent human rights issue. The reason is simple: widowhood affects all of society, since unsupported widows become a root cause of poverty across the generations, increasing the inequalities that fuel instability and conflict. A widow whose life is without hope will have children whose lives are likely to be the same, or even worse. As the UN has found, widows’ lack of inheritance rights might lead to the loss of their home as well as increased stigma and isolation within their community. Widows often have reduced legal rights as well, especially over property: the UN estimates that 40% of nations do not treat men and women equally. We know that widows can fall victim to detrimental cultural practices, extending to forcible remarriage, rape and allegations of witchcraft.
More recently, WPD has been campaigning on the neglected plight of the uncounted millions of half-widows—the wives of the forcibly disappeared or missing, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, told us. The legal status of these women, mainly in conflict-afflicted countries, is ambiguous and they have no legal protection or rights, for example to inheritance, land, or pensions. Very often, they cannot remarry. WPD estimates that in Colombia alone there are 86,000 missing men, while in Sri Lanka there are 40,000. In other fragile and conflict-afflicted states, there are many more and their half-widows encounter insurmountable obstacles in attempting to get the information from the authorities to which they are entitled. They are unable to rebuild their lives or even to grieve properly. I hope the Minister can assure me that the work which the Government have been doing with NGOs, the UN and the World Bank to improve the statistical information available on widows includes all that we can collect on half-widows.
It is right for this House, as we did last year on