Millions of widows around the world are left destitute after being robbed of their inheritance, while others are enslaved by their in-laws, accused of witchcraft or forced to undergo abusive sexual rituals, research shows.
The crushing poverty and persecution faced by widows worldwide is outlined in a major report on widowhood which will be presented to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
“Widows have been suffering in silence for centuries, and yet nobody – no government, not even the U.N. – has ever attended to this problem,” said Lord Raj Loomba, a campaigner on widowhood, who will discuss the issue with Ban in New York.
There are more than 258 million widows worldwide with one in seven living on less than $1 a day, according to the World Widows Report produced by the Loomba Foundation which works to empower widows.
Newly-widowed women in many developing countries are often plunged into destitution after being disinherited, stripped of property and evicted by their in-laws, sometimes losing their children.
Those who remain reliant on their in-laws are often treated like slaves, abused physically, psychologically and sexually, Loomba said.
The deprivation faced by widows is even more devastating because of the impact on their children who may be pulled out of school and forced into child labour or early marriage.
Loomba said the new U.N. global development goals, known as the SDGs, agreed this year would never be met without addressing the problems endured by widows.
“We have got to link this issue to the SDGs. The first goal is the elimination of poverty and the last goal is to leave no one behind – so I want to make sure widows are not left behind,” said Loomba, a member of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber of parliament.
The SDGs also include ending all discrimination and violence against women and girls, and commitments regarding women’s access to property and inheritance.
Estimates suggest the number of widows has risen 9 percent since 2010, partly because of conflicts in the Middle East, the report said.
Child marriage is another cause of early widowhood.
Many girls are left prematurely widowed after being married off to much older men. Young widows who cannot support their children are in turn more likely to marry off their daughters early, perpetuating the cycle.
Two of the most harmful traditional practices are “widow cleansing” and “widow inheritance”, the report says. Both fuel the spread of AIDS, Ebola and other diseases.
Cleansing rituals in Sub-Saharan Africa may require a new widow to drink the water used to wash her husband’s corpse or to have sex with his brother or a stranger to exorcise her husband’s spirit.
Widows may also be “inherited” by their husband’s brother as a first or additional wife – a common tradition in parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.
Loomba said superstitions surrounding widowhood mean they are often blamed for their husband’s death and accused of witchcraft.
Older widows living alone are particularly vulnerable to witchcraft accusations, putting them at risk of violence and even murder.
Beliefs that widows bring bad luck can lead to their exclusion from society, limiting their prospects for employment and entrenching poverty.
Main Image – David Shaw.