Yesterday was a special and important day -- the International Widows’ Day intended by the United Nations to focus attention on the staggering worldwide tragedy of around 259 million widows most of whom are often forced to live in abject poverty and suffer ill-treatment as an ostracized community.
The UN in a statement to mark the event says widows are often 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.
To give special recognition to the situation of widows of all ages and across regions and cultures, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 23, 2011 as the first-ever International Widows’ Day, to be marked annually.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a message says even in this modern day and age when there is an increasingly powerful movement for gender equality, widows are often stigmatized by their families and communities. Many suffer discrimination based on age and gender. Some have lived lives marked by physical and sexual abuse. Older widows often have few economic assets, after a lifetime of hard but unpaid work. Even in developed countries, the value of women’s pensions can be some 40 per cent lower than men’s. Younger widows face other challenges, as heads of households with childcare responsibilities and limited economic opportunities.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda with its pledge to leave no one behind has a particular resonance for widows, who are among the most marginalized and isolated.
The Secretary General has appealed that on International Widows’ Day, we need to pledge to make widows more visible in our societies and to support them in living productive, equal and fulfilling lives.
Playing a leading role in spotlighting the plight of widows and helping to restore their dignity as human beings is the Loomba Foundation which was founded by Lord Raj Loomba CBE and his wife Lady Veena Loomba. It was established in Britain as a charitable trust on June 26, 1997 and has sister charities registered in India and the United States. The inspiration came from Raj’s late mother Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, who became a widow at the early age of 37 and succeeded in educating her seven young children single-handed.
According to a 2015 study by the Loomba Foundation in Sub-Saharan Africa, the worst conditions are faced by evicted and abandoned widows with dependents and by those caught up in the Ebola crisis areas. This is exacerbated by traditional ‘cleansing’ rituals which horrifyingly, include the practice of widows drinking the water with which their dead husband’s body has been washed and to have sex with a relative.
Sri Lanka, still suffering from the devastating consequences of the 26-year war, ranks relatively high in the widows’ list. According to latest reports from the Northern and Eastern provinces some 90,000 war widows are still languishing in varying degrees of destitution, deprivation and degradation.
In April last year the international news agency Al Jazeera did an extensive video report on the plight of these war widows, saying that six years after the guns fell silent, the war widows were still struggling to earn enough to feed themselves and their children. It urged the new National Government to do everything possible to reach out to these forgotten widows. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have repeatedly assured they are doing everything possible to restore the human dignity of these war widows and their families.
In other parts of the country the number of war widows is reported to be around 10,000. While most of them may not have been forgotten or stigmatized we need to remember the psychological crisis faced by a woman without her husband and the children without their fathers. As a society we need to respect them and also give them a window of opportunity to turn a calamity into a blessing and contribute towards the mission of reconciliation and rebuilding of a just society.