International Widows Day - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 7:17 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for tabling this important debate shortly in advance of International Widows Day. It is so important to shine a spotlight on what has for too long been a neglected issue, and I pay tribute to his long record of work in this area, including the great achievement of getting a UN-ratified day to mark its importance. It is challenging to get accurate information, as widows are too often invisible, but the UN estimates that there are a quarter of a billion widows around the world, with more than half living in poverty. As we have heard, many widows face profound hardship and abuse simply because they have lost their husbands, but when given a chance widows can, of course, be powerful agents of change, prosperity and peace.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, set out powerfully the case for doing more for widows across the world. He gave us some welcome news of positive action being taken internationally to mark International Widows Day. My noble friend Lady Nicholson explained the myriad issues widows face and the importance of empowering them, ensuring that we recognise and promote their rights in everything we do. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, highlighted the importance of addressing the stigma that widows can face. I agree with him that one of the very best ways we can do this is through education—for women, of course, but also for men and for society in general.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, spoke of the difficulties that widows can face when searching for their husbands, not knowing whether they are dead or alive, as well as having to deal with the issues that all widows face. My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke of the perpetuation of underachievement and the lack of economic empowerment that widows can face, along with their sons and daughters—and their sons and daughters, for generations—if they do not receive the correct level of support in time. I absolutely agree with her that we need to do more to help widows access the legal rights to which they are entitled.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, spoke of the importance of involving women in peace talks. Conflict and instability affect women and girls differently from men and boys and result in them having different needs and priorities. We are committed to placing women and girls at the centre of efforts to prevent and resolve conflict. That includes tackling women’s and girls’ different needs and making sure they participate fully to ensure lasting stability. We are currently focusing our efforts on promoting women’s meaningful inclusion in three distinct peace processes—in Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, highlighted how forces widows and their families in the UK still face issues and can be left to fend for themselves, although it was very good to hear of the improvements she has seen. With many of the issues we face in international development, we still have more work to do in the UK. My noble friend Lady Hodgson asked for a UK study more fully to understand the situation here. The Government Equalities Office is currently working on a new strategy on women’s economic empowerment that will set out the Government’s ambition to support women across their diverse life courses and I will certainly talk to it after the debate about addressing widows in that.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke of the importance of training in empowering widows. He mentioned Widows for Peace through Democracy. I will join many noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of Margaret Owen. We work closely with that organisation, alongside other key NGOs in this area—Widows’ Rights International, the Global Fund for Widows and of course the Loomba Foundation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is right to say that we have made good strides on women’s rights and women’s empowerment in general, but there are still too many marginalised groups and too many people left behind, including widows. She mentioned female-headed households. It is sometimes difficult to focus our programme funding on programmes with widows. One of the best ways we find to do that is to focus funding on female-headed households, which of course is likely to include many widows. We work with key implementing partners, such as the World Food Programme and the UN Relief and Works Agency to really target female-headed households as well as other vulnerable groups. Our humanitarian programming in the OPTs, which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned, includes the delivery of hygiene kits, and it uses female-headed households as one of the key selection criteria. In Syria, our NGO partners target female-headed households as well, with protection and resilience assistance.

Far too often in the past, work on widows has been considered a niche issue. We really want to challenge that assumption, and supporting widows and female-headed households helps achieve our global goals and addresses the multiple forms of discrimination that they can face. If we want to achieve the global goals, end poverty, achieve gender equality and truly ensure that we leave no one behind, we need to focus on this area.

The cruelties faced by some widows which have been highlighted today are truly shocking. Once widowed, women often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of abuse. All that abuse has one key thing in common: it is the product of harmful social norms, symptomatic of a world where women’s value can be poorly regarded. It can be about controlling and limiting women’s rights.

One of the other assumptions is that widows are passive victims. Many noble Lords have highlighted the importance of proper economic empowerment. It is true that widows face incredible hardships, but they are often the backbone of their families and communities. When protected and empowered, they can be powerful agents for change. We must do all we can to make sure that that power and potential are unleashed, rather than seeing widows trapped in a cage of poverty and stigma. We are committed to tackling those harmful social norms and deep-rooted gender inequality. If we are to achieve gender equality—goal 5 of the global goals—we need to empower all women; not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in our national interest and at the heart of tackling all the barriers and discrimination that we see.

Today we mark another important day: the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right to highlight the opportunity we have at the PSVI conference on this. I will be working very closely on it with my noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is hosting it.

I turn now to what we have achieved since the last International Widows Day. To mark the day, we will be highlighting the issues that widows can face and profiling some of our work on specific projects. This is the first time that DfID has properly marked International Widows Day—that is thanks in no small part to the encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, to my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Bates, and his encouragement to me on this issue. I reassure the noble Lord that we will continue to step up our work to shine a spotlight on the vulnerability of widows, including in international forums such as the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN Human Rights Council and of course the G7 and G20. We have seen good progress in the commission on the Status of Women. A couple of years ago widows were mentioned; last year we saw further mention and detail on that, and we will continue to press on that agenda.

We are also doing work through our country programmes. In Ghana, we are providing support to vulnerable women, including elderly widows who have sometimes been banished from their communities into what are essentially witches’ camps. We really encourage women to learn about their rights and ensure that they have access to services. Thankfully, we are seeing some women reintegrated into their communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the importance of proper economic empowerment. We have supported nearly 35,000 widows in urban slums in Bangladesh with grants to start small businesses. That is a good example of capacity building rather than the handouts highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. In June last year we announced a new programme to support 8,500 pre-independence Commonwealth veterans and their widows who are living below the poverty line. Again, as with many things we do, our Commonwealth partners are a key part of our success there. We are also highlighting the small charities challenge fund—in fact, I think this week is Small Charity Week—at DfID to ensure that we properly distribute our international aid to small charities. We are explicitly welcoming applications focused on widows in the new tranche, so I hope to see support for even more work in this area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked about our work on improving statistics. We really need to do more work in that area to know who, where and why people are at risk of being left behind. We are investing in data which can be properly disaggregated on the basis of sex, age, disability status and geography. This will be particularly important for widows, who are too often invisible in our data, as I have said. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, I say that we do not have enough data on it yet. It is a work in progress, but we continue to push on it. We are doing lots of work within our country programmes and internationally to raise the profile of this.

I will turn to some specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, asked whether we can earmark funds for helping widows. I entirely agree that we can do more to ensure that our existing portfolio is reaching widows, although rather than spend targets we welcome ideas on what more we can do to support and empower widows; this debate has certainly helped in that. The noble Lord also suggested setting up a Select Committee; that would be up to Parliament to consider, but I will certainly pass that suggestion on. Many noble Lords talked about the request for a special rapporteur for widows. I am afraid that I cannot give a positive response on the Government’s position on that, but it really deserves proper consideration, which I will undertake. I would be interested to think more about the potential role of what that rapporteur could do and will continue discussions on this.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised the issue of Kashmir. Tackling human rights abuses is a central part of all our work overseas, including working in close partnership with the UN in Kashmir and elsewhere. The importance of that work has been powerfully testified to by the noble Lord.

I hope that I have answered the majority of questions, and if I have missed any I will follow up in writing. Over the last year we have been working to build DfID’s knowledge and evidence base for our work on widows. We have also focused on raising awareness of the deprivation faced by widows through our international influencing strategy on gender equality, and we will continue that important work.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for putting this debate on the agenda yet again and pay tribute to his consistency in his decades of work on this issue; this interesting debate has been a testament to him on that. I also thank all other speakers today for contributing to the debate on such an important issue.

House adjourned at 7.30 pm.