Recognizing the abused, disadvantaged, and invisible on International Widow’s Day
Acton Institute Powerblog

Recognizing the abused, disadvantaged, and invisible on International Widow’s Day

 “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” Deuteronomy 27:19a

Today is International Widows’ Day (IWD), a day to recognize the situation that widows (of all ages) face internationally and at home. From the United Nations:

Absent in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organizations – the situation of widows is, in effect, invisible.

Yet abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today. Millions of the world’s widows endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health and discrimination in law and custom.

Despite some gains in gender equality worldwide, many women are still among the most vulnerable and marginalized. One woman tells of horrific abuse she suffered because she is a widow:

When Clarisse’s husband died of malaria last year in the Cameroonian city of Douala, she was kicked out of their home by his family and forced to marry his brother.

After having sex with her new husband, the 34-year-old discovered she had syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to blindness and stroke if untreated.

“He accused me of infidelity. He called a meeting of our families and told them I was a prostitute,” she said tearfully, fiddling with the gold wedding ring from her first marriage.

“Everyone accused me of being a witch and said it was me who had killed my husband … my stepmother threatened to kill me,” added Clarisse, who fled with her daughter to the outskirts of Douala, where she lives in an old wooden shack on a riverbank.

The Loomba Foundation’s 2015 World Widows Report found disturbing trends among widows. Some key findings:

  • The global affected population numbers 258 million widows with 585 million children.
  • Of these, 38 million widows live in extreme poverty where basic needs are unmet.
  • Widows with only female children and child widows aged between 10 and 17 face severe discrimination in many developing countries.
  • Social norms around sexual behavior remain counterproductive with extreme poverty as a driver of ‘exchange sex’ and ‘survival sex’ relationships and poor quality healthcare.
  • Widows in western and developed countries have also been affected by cutbacks in social welfare and increased insecurity.
  • Customary ‘cleansing’ rituals, where widows are required to drink the water with which their dead husband’s body has been washed and to have sex with a relative, continue to spread disease and violate the dignity of widows in many Sub-Saharan countries.
  • Widows are regularly accused of killing their husbands either deliberately or through neglect – including by transmitting HIV/AIDS
  • Systematic seizure of property and evictions by the late husband’s family remains widespread in Angola, Bangladesh, Botswana, Republic of Congo, DR Congo, India, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Widows are habitually discriminated against, live in extreme poverty, are forced into violent sexual situations, are degraded, and face other terrible realities. Exacerbating the situation is the young age when some girls marry. In many developing nations, there is a significant age gap between men and the women they marry. Young women are left alone after their significantly older husbands pass away. According to the International Center for Research on Women, one third of girls are married before reaching 18, with one in nine marrying before 15 and “Girls ages 15 – 19 are 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Attitudes toward women and their roles in society need to change before these widows will be treated with the dignity they deserve. Several organizations recognize that one way to help these women is to empower them economically, allowing them to support themselves.  Many PovertyCure Partners specifically work with women, including widows. Trades of Hope works with female artisans in developing nations; they promote and sell handmade goods that the women have created. The Christian Women Entrepreneurs’ Network in Africa (CWENA) is a religious support organization that trains “women from all walks of life” in business through coaching and mentor-ship programs. Mediapila educates low income women and teaches them lucrative new trades as well as focusing on improving confidence and self-esteem.

These women are not helpless or hopeless by any means, but their struggles are real and should be recognized.

Christians are called to care for the most vulnerable and the most marginalized; we should be appalled by the significant struggles widows face. Today let’s recognize the millions of widows and their children.