My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate. He has been a long-standing and effective champion for all widows.
In most poor and developing countries, widows are found to be worse off than widowers. It is very worrying that some 585 million children are thought to be dependent on widowed mothers, and sometimes grandmothers. Your Lordships will understand that such children are less likely to be in school or to be able to complete their education. This arises because they have often to work to support their mother or grandmother.
I was moved to join in this debate out of concern for widows in war-ravaged countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Iraq—but Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey and Palestine also spring to mind, as they are the countries that I happen to know best. Of course, other countries in Africa and central America have suffered genocide or prolonged civil war. Most widows have needs for care, retraining and empowerment. Do our aid programmes and those of other major donors have special provision for widows? A number of previous speakers asked for a UN special rapporteur for widowhood. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government’s attitude and policy are on that.
Widows for Peace through Democracy has been mentioned. It has provided a worldwide voice for widows ever since the Beijing conference of 1995. It is, however, entirely dependent on voluntary donations. Surely there should be some official funding for the advocates of widows, whose worldwide number has been put at some 285 million by the United Nations.
Mention has been made also of half-widows: that is, people whose status is quite uncertain, such as the former wives of men who have been forcibly disappeared —I give the example of those who have disappeared in the war on drugs in the Philippines. There are others whose husbands have simply gone missing for a whole range of reasons. Widows and half-widows suffer acutely from poverty. This is bound to affect their children, as I mentioned in relation to schooling, and others have mentioned in relation to forced marriage, which we all know to be most undesirable.
The ancient practice of suttee, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, has long been abolished. We live nevertheless in a difficult world. There is still much misogyny. Extreme fundamentalists abound, of all kinds and in many religions. They are the enemies of peace, harmony and co-operation.
We can see that widowhood is a subject that crosses many traditional boundaries. That is why we need a special rapporteur and special programmes of training and empowerment. Widows can be seen as victims, but they also have huge potential, along with all the feminine half of existing humanity. I therefore look forward to a very positive reply from the Minister.