My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for this debate on a topic on which he knows so much and has done so much good work. I know that his particular interest is widows in developing countries, but the inclusion of International Widows Day gives me an opportunity to speak on widows closer to home. I offer my sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. My late husband was an RAF officer for 30 years and I am a vice-president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain; the wonderful noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is its much-loved president.
Widows in developing countries face challenges which we hope that our widows no longer do, but our widows have not always been treated with compassion and care. I first came face to face with widowhood nearly 50 years ago in RAF Germany with my husband, where a good friend’s husband ploughed into the airfield while practising for a display for the families’ day that weekend. Her children were four and a few months old. The station commander and his wife duly appeared on her doorstep to break the news, closely followed by the information that, without a serving officer in the house, she would need to move out as soon as possible, since she was no longer entitled to live in a married quarter. The problem was that she had nowhere to go; nor did she have any money, as he had not served quite long enough to have earned a pension. Her life was really tough. These days, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund often steps in to help with housing, but not then. She got help from the fund for her children’s education at an RAF school, and was always touched that it sent presents which she could not afford for birthdays and Christmas.
These days, things have greatly improved in the military. The newly bereaved have an effects officer allocated to cope with the practicalities and the War Widows Association uses its skill as a pressure group to improve the conditions of widows and their dependants in Great Britain. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, it is currently conducting a survey of widows to gather experiences and stories, which it hopes will help to inform people about the work. Its work encompasses those who have suffered bereavement as a result of World War II and all conflicts since then, including Iraq and Afghanistan. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, many of them are actually very young. Its campaigns have improved the conditions of war widows and war widowers, including ending the situation where widows lost their meagre pensions if they found happiness with someone else. There are regional organisers who offer friendship and support. They organise social events and telephone calls to those who can no longer get to events, because loneliness can feature large in widows’ lives.
Remembrance is very important. We have our own Cenotaph service on the Saturday before the national Remembrance Day. At one stage, war widows were not allowed to march on the Sunday; these days they are, and young and old can be seen stepping out proudly with the Sunday parade, but we still value the Saturday ceremony too. Hearing their experiences can be really humbling, while making one quite angry at the way in which widows can be left to fend for themselves without support or money. To hear of mothers who struggle to return from overseas and find work while caring for small children, or to hear of their efforts in making ends meet with resourcefulness and courage, all the while coping with grief and the loss of a life partner, really makes you stop and count blessings. As I have discovered—to my cost—there is a great camaraderie of widows, which I trust is true in other countries too.
It has taken us a while to support the widows of men serving our country, but even they can be better off than civilian widows, who often have nowhere to turn. When I worked for the citizens advice bureau, I well remember the distraught people with no idea how to arrange a funeral, sort finances or generally cope with life without a partner. The CAB could offer practical advice and point to counsellors or often churchmen, because religious people can be rather wonderful at times of death.
As we have heard, in developing countries there is often a stigma in being a widow, to add to all the practical and emotional problems of losing a breadwinner and partner. But there can be a stigma here too: old friends tend to avoid those bereaved, lest they cause upset. Quite often on social occasions, people do not particularly relish having an odd one out. In some countries, widows lack legal rights, cannot inherit and experience violence and ostracism, as we have heard powerfully from the noble Lords, Lord Loomba and Lord Parekh, and others. Losing a husband can mean losing the wherewithal for life, love and respect, but we hope not here.
What actions have the Government taken since the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, last year to support and empower widows? Has the violence against women and girls help desk been able to intervene to help widows? As we try to treat our widows with more compassion and support, has the Minister suggestions on how we can reach out to those in other countries whose suffering is more acute than the grief and sorrow which are part of the lot of any widow?