International Widows Day - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:11 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 7:11 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate. It is because of his commitment that we have 23 June as International Widows Day, decided by the UN General Assembly in 2010. I would also like to pay tribute to Margaret Owen, who has done so much work, and add my own condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her loss.

International Widows Day is a call to action to restore widows’ human rights and, through education and real empowerment, help alleviate the poverty and discrimination into which widowhood can plunge them. As the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted, women whose husbands die often face extensive discrimination and injustice. The consequential social and economic exclusion can lead to poverty for them and their children. I speak from personal experience, as my mother was widowed with four young children. We lived in a tied house, so she lost not only her husband but her home. She had to find work and a new house for us to live in, in very difficult circumstances. This has influenced my views about women’s rights and empowerment.

I thank the Loomba Foundation for its World Widows Report, which ensures that we are better placed to understand the full scale of the problems faced by women who become widows. There are more than 250 million widows globally and, as we have heard in this debate, the number has grown by 9% since 2010, partly because of conflicts and disease. The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights.

Successive UK Governments of different political persuasions have championed women’s rights internationally, supporting issues including girls’ education, preventing sexual violence in conflict, and family planning. I pay tribute to this Government’s role in keeping this issue centre stage internationally.

The Minister highlighted many of the actions taken by the Government in Monday’s debate on the Vancouver Women Deliver conference. I shall not go over the areas we covered then, but I want to stress the importance of the forthcoming PSVI conference in November and the need to ensure that we not only commit more resources ourselves but that we ensure that other Governments commit to a similar level of support to prevent sexual violence. I hope the Minister will confirm that there will be time dedicated at the conference to the issue of the violence that widows often face.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, mentioned that widowhood does not affect just older people; but older women are more likely to be widowed. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how DfID and the Government are responding to the specific needs and rights of older women in their work on widows. How are the Government ensuring that the paid and unpaid work and care that older widows are doing is recognised and supported, as part of their commitment to SDG 8 on decent work and leaving no one behind?

On health, according to research by the World Bank, widowed women are far more likely to live with HIV. Coupled with this is the fact that widowed women are often isolated, meaning that much-needed healthcare can be inaccessible. What steps are the Government taking to contribute to the global fight against HIV, since the issue disproportionately impacts widows?

We talked about empowerment in this debate. Only 0.1% of the total aid from OECD donors is committed to women’s organisations, and only 0.02% to women’s organisations based in developing countries. Given the vital role of women’s groups in promoting the rights of widows and in empowering women generally, what steps is the Minister’s department taking to ensure that we not only increase support but increase funding for these vital organisations that support widows?