The fight against the ‘Black Widows’ notion
Widows are a group of women who tend to be highly marginalised at both the lower and higher strata of society, mainly due to patriarchal systems that still exist, especially in Third World nations. A widow’s reputation can go from being the doting wife and care-giver, admired for nursing her sick husband the days before his death, to being accused of killing him and being denied of inheriting anything he would have wished her to inherit to support the family.
In these very common scenarios above, the hate, envy and disrespect kicks in from the widow’s husband’s family members who overnight start to treat her with contempt and subject her to severe emotional abuse. It is bad enough that widows are grieving. Do they now need to deal with family dramas and financial trauma and fabricated reputational issues and even risk losing their homes?
Fighting for the rights of bereaved wives is still quite disproportionately low compared to the other plights women can face, but there are some organisations that are doing their best to address this. For example, there is Widows’ Rights International, a UK-based not for profit organisation that advocates for ending cultural practices and traditions which directly lead to dire consequences for widows.
The organisation is working very hard advocating for widowhood issues to be fully integrated into the human rights agendas of national and international agencies so that this group of women do not remain marginalised.
As things stand, widows’ rights are not fully integrated into mainstream human rights agendas or fully championed by those advocating for human rights for women. Indeed, it was only in March this year, during the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 11 to 22, 2019 that widows were finally mentioned in the CSW63 “agreed conclusions” document on agreed dated 25 March 2019. The event hosts representatives of Member States, UN entities and ECOSOC-accredited NGOs worldwide to gather together to address the pressing issue on the women’s agenda.
But widows, like any other group of women, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, also need to be empowered. They also need to be provided with greater political and economic opportunities so that they, too, can help build economically secure and healthier communities. Widows are also mothers and also have children to educate. If they are denied access to the property and income they enjoyed during their husband’s life, this will have a direct negative impact on their children. How will they send them to school? How will they feed them? Where will they live?
Last year, Investing In Women strategically decided to raise funds to support a women’s charity that advocates for improving the human rights and social and economic justice of widows on its agenda. Womankind Worldwide is certainly having an impact by supporting widows to have access to legal advice, especially relating to their property rights.
This year Investing In Women, during its Lagos event, was pleased to be supported by The Leventis Foundation (LFN) that supports widows with its Fatima’s Farms initiative, a 20-hectare site within LFN’s Weppa Farm. Work on Fatima’s Farm commenced in May 2018 and 20 hectares of wet season maize were planted. The foundation believes that the “empowerment of rural women is of benefit not only to themselves, but to their families and their communities. Research shows that women spend on average a much greater percentage than men of the money they earn on their families’ food, housing, health and education.”
The beneficiaries of this scheme are defined by Leventis as being “disadvantaged women” consisting of two groups: widows and single mothers. (Source: Weppa Farm website)
Also in Nigeria businesswoman and philanthropist Folurunsho Alakija set up The Rose of Sharon Foundation (RoSF) to deal with the dilemmas widows face. The Foundation, which was registered in February 14, 2005 and formally launched on May 23, 2008, has directly impacted the lives of more than 4,262 widows and indirectly 10,000 immediate family members in Lagos, Ogun and other parts of the country.
The Foundation is focused on working to alleviate the plights of the world’s most vulnerable people – widows and orphans – by offering 0% interest micro loans to widows to startup a business and are allowed to pay back over a long period of time.
“We have given a lot of widows interest free loans to start up their businesses, we have taken children and orphans off the streets to school with full scholarships and a number of them are graduates from different tertiary institutions in the country.
“We have offered different empowerment programs such as: Enterprise Development and Skills Acquisition Programs, ROSF Micro Credit Scheme, ROSF Scholarship Scheme, Youth Empowerment Program, and ROSF Welfare Scheme,” she said at the Foundation’s 10th anniversary last year.
Sri Lanka has a high number of war widows after its bloody civil war (about 90,000 according to Reuters in 2017). In this country, widows form part of the group of women in the country who are defined as “single” female heads of households and discrimination and social stigma are common towards female-headed households who are vulnerable and prone to have, not only their human rights breached, but also suffer as victims of crimes. These women are deemed to be inauspicious, as “unlucky”, as a “bad omen” and are not culturally accepted. If their husband dies intestate, they have to wait for their children’s consent (at 18 years) before they can make any decisions on or benefit from their late husband’s estate. They are also generally not invited to community ceremonies such as weddings and festivals, and are a highly marginalised part of the population. So aside from the economic and legal implications mentioned above, as in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, in other parts of the world widows also face discrimination and are a high-risk group for facing danger and crimes against them-simply for being widows. Another example particular to the Sri Lanka war widows was the 2011-2015 trend for these war widows to be promised jobs as maids in The Gulf, who then ended up being trafficked as slaves. We hope that now that the UN has widows clearly written on its agenda as a separate risk group, the world would start to address not only the universal human rights breaches faced by groups of women, but those particularly relating to the status of widows.