My Lords, I add my tribute and thanks to my noble friend Lord Loomba for his outstanding service in making a difference to the lives of widows. Over many years, he has campaigned for the rights of widows around the world. It is thanks to the Loomba Foundation’s relentless dedication that we have International Widows Day on
According to a 2018 report from the Office for National Statistics, 6.6% of the population of England and Wales are widows, the majority being female and over the age of 65. The UK is considered to have made substantial progress on the rights of women, but we cannot take comfort that many of those advances have eradicated the endemic inequalities which persist in many sections of our society, including widows, who often experience sudden social ostracisation, lack of financial standing and legal discrimination. A number of women I have spoken to say that they have experienced isolation and had no idea about the services available to them on becoming a widow in respect of housing, employment and financial and legal support.
The legal, social and economic obstacles that widowed women face are prevalent not just in the UK but globally, as reported by the Loomba Foundation. The treatment of widows continues to be gendered and hostile, forcing widowed women into a state of invisibility. It is the unpalatable truth that over many decades, we have engaged in war and division internationally, by partaking in one conflict or another. As a result, millions have experienced displacement and widowhood. Equally, I would like to draw the House’s attention to our international efforts in supporting women in the aftermath of wars and conflict. However, humanitarian crises are all too prevalent, as are the numbers of women facing unprecedented hardship, particularly when they have lost their partners and family members.
During the reconstruction phase in a country, it is incumbent on us to show equal conviction in addressing the needs of women-headed families and the widows and children who are suffering as a direct result of conflict and wars, in which we are often a partner. Whether in Iraq, which has been mentioned, or Syria, or Palestine, widows are the end result of these interventions. Therefore, for the sake of both our national credibility and our proclaimed moral responsibility, we must put equal, if not greater force, into rebuilding communities as we do into the wars that destroy these countries.
Personally, I have had the honour of speaking to a number of Bangladeshi women who were raped by the then Pakistani army in 1971, and who were subsequently widowed. Although these events happened more than 40 years ago, the suffering of many of these women did not end until they faced death. For thousands of them, justice never came. I am deeply saddened to hear from noble Lords’ contributions today that many hundreds of thousands of women who have experienced rape and torture in wars since then are still waiting for justice and reparation.
We have an incredible passion for international development and are working across the globe. As a woman, I do not wish to see the international community turn a blind eye to Yazidi or Kurdish women, or the women of Palestine, Kashmir, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq or Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are crying out for the justice and support they deserve. Noble Lords are acutely aware that many widows have young children who are dependent on them. Indeed, the children themselves have often witnessed or been subjected to rape, torture and violence.
As has been said, during the 2018 debate, the then Minister said that 9.8 million women and girls had received humanitarian assistance. So I ask the Minister: do we keep statistics on where widowed women fit into the humanitarian framework? I also add my own personal call for a UN rapporteur for widows.
It would be helpful to have some understanding of the humanitarian efforts that Britain makes and whether staff are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed for dealing with the issues of widows, particularly in the aftermath of conflict and war. Debates aside, what will Her Majesty’s Government do to assess and evaluate our current policies and services, to see whether they stand up to scrutiny in ensuring the safety, security and economic dignity of widows both in the UK and globally?