Thursday, June 23 was International Widows Day (IWD). According to statistics, there are an estimated 258 million widows around the world. In some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, around 50 per cent of the total number of women are widows! The staggering number of widows is increasing daily with the number of armed conflicts around the world, displacement, hard work and stress-induced death among men, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic.
The theme of the 2022 International Widows Day is “Sustainable Solutions for Widows Financial Independence”. The theme could not have been more timely and apt because the theme focuses on the most critical of the challenges being encountered by widows — the lack of financial independence. Most widows are usually deprived access to their late husbands’ bank accounts. Such widows, especially the ones that are full-time house wives become destitutes and rely on pittance from their in-laws. Exploring avenues for the financial independence of widows will therefore go a long way in making widows a bit more comfortable.
The International Widows Day was first observed by the Loomba Foundation in 2005. The Foundation chose June 23 to mark the International Widows Day because its founder, Rajinder Paul Loomba’s mother, Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, became a widow on that day in 1954. However, the United Nations formally sanctioned 23 June as International Widows Day via resolution A/RES/65/189 in 2011 and since then the UN has been observing the day.
The Day is observed to spread awareness about the challenges of widows and to galvanize support for them as well as promote policies favouring them. It is a day that stakeholders are expected to critically look at what must be done to safeguard and advance the rights of widows. The day is equally significant as it assists in amplifying the voices of widows. More than ever, the day is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows.
While discussing the International Widows Day, it is instructive to retrace our steps to when the man and woman come together in marriage, which for some reason, leads to widowhood. Marriage, by every standard, is a blissful thing, a wonderful union, especially when there is real love between the man and the woman, and more so when it is encapsulated in trust. The home is filled with warmth, joy and happiness.
However, for most women, the same warm, lovely, happy home becomes a living hell, should the man die before the wife. Not in all cases, but in most African homes. This is because the once-loving brothers-in-law and other relations of the late husband, who were doting over their brother’s wife and showing her so much love, would be the same ones making life difficult for the widow. In Africa and some Asian countries like India, in spite of the pain of the loss of their husbands, widows are made to go through all sorts of deprivation and discrimination.
Some of the numerous challenges widows go through include the loneliness and emptiness that come with losing one’s husband, who has been a friend, provider, companion and partner over the years. Widows are denied their basic rights and dignity. Under customary laws widows have little or no rights, to inheritance or land ownership when their husbands die. The in-laws of the widows usually grab the properties of the late husbands just as the widows are denied access to their late husbands’ bank accounts.
Widows are forced into participating in dehumanising and dangerous traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites. For example, widows are forced to drink the water with which their husbands’ corpses were washed! Mourning rites may also involve shaving of widows’ hair. In some cases they are compelled to marry their late husbands’ siblings or other relations, against their wish.
Widowhood comes with some consequences. For instance, the death of a husband can lead to destitution, especially for older women. Statistics show that about six of every 10 widows live in extreme poverty. From experience, most widows are left unsupported and uncared for by their late husbands’ relations. In some cases, particularly in Africa and Asia, widows find themselves as victims of physical and mental violence – including sexual abuse. They carry the unenviable burden of bringing up the children all by themselves.
With no access to their late husbands’ properties, especially bank accounts, widows are dependent on the charity of their husbands’ relations. More often than not, they are made homeless after being deprived access to their husbands’ properties. With no money of their own, widows are forced to seek informal work as domestic labourers or even turn to prostitution. There are instances where widows became liable for the debts of their deceased spouses.
The Bayelsa State Branch of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in a statement signed by its Chairperson, Mrs Deme Debra Pamosoo Esq and the Chairperson of its Parliamentary Committee, Mrs Miebai Boma Esq, issued as part of its celebration of the 2022 International Widows Day, decried the fact that widows face all sorts of discrimination and dehumanising, obnoxious customary practices all in the name of widowhood.
The body which hailed widows for their courage and doggedness, said it was vehemently opposed to all forms of evil and discriminatory practices against widows.
According to the statement, FIDA Bayelsa said, “We call on the government to take action and show commitment in observing international conventions to which they are signatories, including the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women”.
The statement, which said the office of FIDA Bayelsa can be located at the Multi-door Court House, Ovom, Yenagoa, stated that the body can be reached on 08039117078.
Expatiating on the discriminatory practices against widows, FIDA Bayelsa Chairperson, Pamosoo said “Widows are forced into marriages; they are “shared” along with the deceased properties to any male relatives, as if they are commodities from the shelf. Many are refused from administering their late husbands’ estate as they attempt to obtain letters of administration; they shave their hair when their husbands die; they are forced to drink the water used in washing the body of their deceased to exonerate them from responsibility of the death of their husbands. The widow can be refused entry into the house until the “mourning” period is over. In addition, the widow can be deprived of use of her late husband’s properties or deprived from attending his burial”.
Speaking on what government can do to reduce the problems of widows, Pamosoo said “FIDA Bayelsa is calling on the government to take a closer look at widows and how to make them financially stable. Statistically, widows suffer more where they are financially handicapped. It is not enough to give them foodstuffs and wrappers once In a while, they should be empowered to be self-reliant.
“There can be a social scheme specifically for widows, and widowers too. In the same vein, we appreciate the government, who once in a while, through the Ministry of Women, Children Affairs, Empowerment and Social Development, empower widows who are vulnerable. Our appeal however is that this should be more regular. Our appreciation also goes to Her Excellency, Dr (Mrs) Gloria Diri, who, through her Foundation has empowered some widows”.
In the last six months under the dispensation of the current Chairperson, Mrs.Deme Debra Pamosoo Esq., FIDA Bayelsa has taken up two cases involving widows. One of them was amicably resolved between FIDA and the family while the other case was referred to Citizens Right for action to be instituted.
If the government shows commitment to observing international conventions, to which it is a signatory, including the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; if it carries out some of the suggestions espoused by Mrs Pamosoo and stakeholders add their voices to the cry of widows, we can be on the way to alleviating some of the challenges of widows in the society.