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The negative effects of becoming a widow have far reaching consequences for societies at large. These range from the mass poverty of pension-age women, to severe destitution, as well as outcomes not dissimilar to more serious types of war crimes in some developing countries. Ultimately, each of the consequences represents a deprivation that requires urgent action, because if left unaddressed, the negative ethical and economic costs, which are interlinked, will be felt with increasing intensity by societies around the world. This presents barriers to the prospects for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), due to the cross-cutting impact of widows’ deprivation on themes such as such as gender equality and the link between the deprivation of widows and girls.

These themes run throughout the consequences of widowhood in all parts of the world. The main substantive distinction between developing and developed countries is that the impact of social norms on deprivation is far less direct in developed countries.

The basic themes examined are the consequences for widows of:

  • moving into poverty and the intensification of existing poverty,
  • health risks and outcomes,
  • threats and outcomes for their children,
  • social marginalisation,
  • the impact of social norms.

Four factors determine the consequences of the loss of a husband or partner for women:

  • loss of the husbands’ (or partners’) income from paid employment,
  • the availability of adequately paid employment opportunities for women together with childcare,
  • rules regarding the inheritance of property (both formal and informal) – particularly land for rural women in developing countries, where the impact of a lack of sons is significant,
  • the existence or lack of state welfare provision (especially healthcare, childcare and education), currently referred to in the research on developing countries as social protection.

The consequence of loss of income on the husband’s death is straightforward, in that the income he once earned is no longer available for the surviving wife or partner and any dependent children. A programme for widows started in 1999 by the World Bank and Indonesian government stated that ‘the link between widows and poverty is well-known. Loss of an adult male is economically devastating to already poor families’ (World Bank 2005).

How severe the impact of this material change in circumstances is depends on the other three factors mentioned. The evidence from around the world suggests that in too many cases, all three of these factors present themselves simultaneously in the least advantageous ways, compounding one another and ensuring widows and their children move into extreme poverty. Jody Heymann’s international study (Heymann 2006) on families in poverty demonstrated the wide international incidence of income-induced poverty for women and their dependents when families go from two incomes to one, or as is often the case, from a better paid male income to a very badly paid female income when women lose their partners or husbands.

The big-picture view of the prevalence and severity of loss of income for widows as a group, from premature male death, is provided by a rare multi-country poverty study by the World Bank (Narayan 2000: 253-254). This study on causes and processes of poverty asked individual men and women around the world about the triggers of downward mobility into poverty. Data in the study are ordered in the broad geographic groupings of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

In all regions combined, 43 percent of women cited ‘illness, injury, or death’ (World Bank’s wording) as the primary cause for moving into poverty, compared with only 23 percent of men. Combining men and women together, overall, ‘illness, injury, or death’ was the most common out of the 17 poverty triggers the study recorded. Nearly 35 percent of men and 20 percent of women reported the reason for falling into poverty as ‘loss of employment or fewer opportunities’, which includes, ‘a decline in temporary and seasonal wages.’ Section 5.1.1 examines the impact of losing the husband’s or partner’s income in more detail.

Loss of income, low wages and lack of a welfare state

In many country contexts, women, and in particular widows, are either not permitted to take up paid employment at all, or find it difficult to obtain, and/or are unable to find dignified types of work (Shukri 1996: 59-63, Sangtin Writers and Nagar 2006: 72-77, Jeffery and Jeffery 1993 and 1996). Even where they do, they are paid less than men, sometimes significantly so. Income inequality between men and women can further aggravate a situation where men’s wages in manufacturing and agriculture are already low and typically insufficient to maintain families without state welfare support. In addition, childcare is required if women are to take up full-time work due to the loss of a spouse or partner. This brings additional costs and daily logistical considerations. The international significance of the childcare issue was highlighted in a recent international study by Jody Heymann (2006) and shown to be a significant problem across all regions, especially for women in low-paid employment.

The problem and risks of inadequately paid work and lack of childcare are starkly illustrated in the 2008 testimony of a young Bangladeshi widow. Salma (name changed), a garment factory worker in Dhaka in her mid-20s, whose husband was killed in a factory fire, gave the following account during a awareness raising campaign on the exploitative working conditions of workers producing clothes for the OECD market:

‘Working hours per day are from 8 am to 10 pm, with only a 15-minute break. Work pressure is high: there is not time to go to the toilets, which are very dirty and too few in number, there is no safe water to drink, some have caught typhoid from it. We are often not paid on time, and overtime is sometimes not paid at all even when it is due. I earn £25 a month, £40 if I am in luck through overtime.

‘Workers do not get the legal entitlement to maternity leave. Factories sometimes have very bright lights or not enough light. The air in the factories becomes extremely hot because of the outside temperature and the lack of widows, most of which are very small, and again, there is nothing to drink. Chemicals on the fabrics are not handled with protective clothing. [Air-borne particulate matter from the cloth poses a significant respiratory hazard if not controlled.] The buyers require two things of factory owners for the workers, a canteen and a children’s day-care facility. But in my factory, we are not permitted to use them, and are told that we should tell anyone who asks where the children are, that we have no children, so we don’t need the children’s facility.’

A trade unionist representing Salma said the wages widows earn do not support a family, resulting in them living in slums located far from the factories in the case of Dhaka. And when the factory workers, 85 percent of whom are women, agitated not for a living wage, but for equal pay with men, some local Mullahs (Islamic clerics) condemned equal pay with men, saying if obtained, the women would, ‘burn in hell’.

On top of this, buses are not affordable on a daily basis, so they have to walk (a two hour commute one way), which, with a late evening finish, means women are said to be at risk of sexual assault. Because of the working conditions, workers spend no more than six to ten years in the industry.

Salma was able, through the trade union that fought her case, to obtain compensation for the death of her husband. Because she is widowed, and the factory does not allow the childcare facility to be used, Salma’s son, her only child, lives with her parents in the countryside. Salma is only able to see her son twice a year, usually during Eid. The western company that outsources the production of its clothes to her Bangladeshi company contractually requires it to provide childcare for employees with young children (interview with R.F. Harma, 2008).

Without her husband, this widow is locked into this highly demanding poverty trap, with heightened risks and accumulating negative impact on her health. Without remarrying, and with only one young child as a possible source of future support, she already faces a heightened risk of deeper deprivation and outright destitution. There are three million Bangladeshi garment workers, most of them women.

Even widows whose husbands have left them money are not immune to the problems faced by the group in which they unwittingly find themselves. Kidan Felomon, an Eritrean widow, thought she might be one of the lucky ones, until reality proved otherwise:

‘I am a 47-year-old widow and I live in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. I have nine children. The oldest is 20 and youngest is seven. My husband died of AIDS in 1999. He was a well-to-do merchant who travelled between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He did not tell me that he was infected with AIDS. Three years before his death I asked the doctor who was looking after him to tell me the cause of his sickness and he told me that my husband was suffering from liver cancer. But later, one of the nurses who were coming to my house weekly told me that my husband was infected with the virus. When I found out that I was HIV-positive too, I felt like killing my children and myself. The illness of my husband totally impoverished our family. I sold all our furniture and jewellery to support my family and pay for my husband’s medical expenses. I had 70 to 80 grams of gold, which my husband had bought for me, but I had to sell that too. There were times when I could not give food to my children. Once, my children went without food for a whole day. In the evening I gave the last plate of pasta to my husband and did not know what to give to the children…’ (Izumi 2006: 14)

In Cambodia, widows do not suffer from the levels of gender discrimination seen in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, due to the reciprocal nature of kinship practices between husbands’ and wives’ parents’ families. This means married daughters are able to assist their widowed mothers on the mother’s agricultural plot, an unlikely scenario in northern India, where married women are deliberately isolated from their parents (Lee 2004: 4-6).

However, Cambodia still provides a prime example of large-scale widows’ deprivation, due to the country suffering from widespread and deep poverty induced by economic underdevelopment, and due to international and internal military conflict, including a heavy incidence of landmines and UXO. A significant section of the country was carpet bombed with high explosive and air deliverable landmines during the Vietnam war and today remains unsuitable for livelihood exploitation. Cambodia is one of the 49 countries designated by the UN as ‘least developed’ (LDC status) (United Nations Conference on Aid and Development 2008). Around 80 percent of the population is rural. Rural widows are reportedly unable to support their children through agriculture, requiring a diversified livelihoods strategy. However, unlike the post-conflict situation in Afghanistan, widows have been able to move into male work roles in the face of the shortage of men caused by the Khmer Rouge genocide (Lee 2004: 4-6).

Clearly effective social protection or state welfare provision, including free healthcare (free at least with regard to non-elective medical treatment), income support, childcare, and free children’s education would make a significant positive difference for widows. The minimum requirement of these is income support (including pensions for older people), while a truly effective regime would include at least free healthcare and childcare as part of this minimum. As a proxy for the effectiveness and existence of state welfare provision, Table 5.1 looks at data on deaths of mothers in childbirth for nearly all countries. Maternal mortality is a very effective indicator of the quality and coverage of healthcare systems because of the multi-faceted nature and complexity of maternal healthcare, covering pre-pregnancy, antenatal, childbirth and post-childbirth stages of medical care required to ensure women stay healthy, with a particular emphasis on logistics. In Table 5.1 countries with poorly functioning or non-existent welfare state are at far left, and those with very effective and ‘gold standard’ ones are at far right. Afghanistan versus Austria sums up the measurement scale. A gradation of groupings lies in between.

Table 5.1 measures the coverage and effectiveness of state welfare provision globally using maternal mortality as an indicator. Countries with the highest maternal mortality, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, or Afghanistan, are known to have very low quality or non-existent state welfare provision. Child mortality follows a similar pattern, and can be seen in the table in the appendix to this section. Similarly, as shown in the section on war widows, women who are effectively widowed by conflict, but who cannot prove their husbands’ deaths, are denied government income support, resulting often in severe poverty that threatens health and life expectancy.

The opposite outcome is clearly demonstrated by those East Asian countries with state welfare provision in the core areas of health, education and income support for vulnerable groups (Haggard and Kaufman 2008, Gauld 2005).

The following example highlights the importance of state welfare provision where husbands have died of HIV/AIDS. It demonstrates the start of a downward spiral for the surviving family. The story of Lorato, a young widow in Botswana, illustrates clearly what happens when employment and family support fails and the welfare state does not exist. Lorato is the mother of three children: one year old Unity, three year old Masilo, and seven year old Ontibile. She had been maintaining her children on a small income provided by her partner, Baruti, which amounted to 600 pula ($129 US). However, Baruti died of HIV/AIDS, resulting in an immediate crisis for Lorato and the children. She not only faced a dramatic drop in income, she now had to find childcare if she was to work enough to support her children. She was forced to choose work that allowed her to take the youngest child with her, and left the two older children alone at home. However, further complications arose when the youngest child became ill. Caring for the ill child prevented her from working, which meant she did not get paid. She recounts:

‘With the money, I always made sure I paid the rent first. If we didn’t have accommodation, it would be extra difficult. We make sure we pay the rent and with the money that is left we buy food and try to live off piece jobs. I used to get my money from piece jobs and buy some used clothing for my baby – shawls, vest, socks. There was another lady we knew who worked at the clinic. Because other children were getting food from the government and were picking it up at the clinic, we usually asked her to give us some cooking oil. She’d take some for us if she could manage it. Sometimes it was paleche [corn porridge], beans, or milk. She would help us in that way.

‘After Baruti passed away, I think my children noticed a change in my care. My ability to provide food for them and other needs had changed. [Before he died], there were times when there was a favourite meal – meat with beans. Very soon, it wasn’t there, and they started asking for it. I’d just tell them, ‘Look, I have only porridge today, so you’ll just have to eat it.

‘I was lucky I got a job as a maid, so I had to get someone to look after the children while I was out at work. But I came back after a very long time, and my baby had the same diaper on as when I left. Even now, my child is being treated for her diaper rash. The baby still has it.

‘[The care provider] had taken her [own] baby and left my children hungry and with no one to take care of them. When I came home, my youngest son had eaten a chongololo [a type of centipede]. They have many, many legs. He swallowed one and its legs were all over his throat. The legs had to be taken out at the hospital.

‘My baby started to get sick in the beginning of December. Although I was breast- feeding her and she ate and fed well, she started vomiting after eating. I watched her, thinking she would be okay, giving her porridge often during the day so that she would still have her strength. I gave her some water and she got better. On the 16th, I decided to bring her to the hospital because she had started to have diaorrhea by now. She was admitted that same day in the hospital, and on December 25th she was getting better. On the 29th, it started again. That’s when she didn’t want to eat anything – she didn’t take any food. Only recently, one of the doctors here asked me if people ever visited me who were my guardians and who were close to me. I started getting worried. What if something serious were to happen? What if I’d have the world’s worst problems?

‘I really can’t afford anything because I’m not working and there really isn’t anyone who is helping me with anything. None of my relations have come to visit me except my sister… When we were first here at the hospital, she gave me 50 pula from her money (her boyfriend) had given her. In that sense, that’s all I can live on. Sometimes the people who are in the hospital as well send me to go to a tuck shop (a small informal stand or stall close to a roadside which sells basic provision) and then on the way I meet somebody I know. They’ll say to me, “Here’s 5 pula, go and buy yourself a drink.” I don’t use that money for drinks; I make sure that I buy soap.’ (Heymann 2006)

Jody Heymann, the author of the international study that featured Lorato’s case, documents similar conditions for widows and their children in Honduras and Vietnam. She emphasises the need for adequate state-funded childcare, among other free-at-the-point-of-use social provision such as healthcare, if low-income single parent (e.g. widows’) families are to survive.

Other researchers have noted the simultaneous confluence of loss of income, lack of employment, lack of a welfare state and loss of inheritance. The following is an observation by Chen and Drèze, widely known internationally for their research on widows deprivation, in their research on India:

‘The north Indian widow tends to be a highly marginalised person. She typically receives very little support from persons other than her own children, and even when she lives with one or several of her adult sons she remains highly vulnerable to neglect. Further, her ability to engage in income-earning activities of her own is severely restricted, partly due to various patriarchal norms such as patrilineal inheritance and the division of labour by gender [i.e. limited options for women to have paid employment]. The consequences of this social and economic marginalisation are manifest (…) in poor health and high mortality levels.’ (Madan 2002: 417-444, citing Chen and Drèze 1995)

In India, the widely held view that older widows are adequately cared for by their children is only partly true, based on the evidence of older widows living on their own or evicted and abandoned. This is of great concern, given the sheer number of widows in India and that 41.6 percent of widows are living in extreme poverty. The 2001 Census of India recorded 34.3 million widows, which the present Report estimates will have reached at least 42 million by 2010 (Government of India 2008: 5). A medical NGO working in a rural area of the Indian state of Haryana identified widows with dependent children as the group least likely to be able to afford healthcare, the widowed mothers being able to secure only one meal a day. In another example, an aid worker from the NGO Action Aid’s Bangalore office visiting a rural area in the state of Karnataka, found a family who had placed their elderly widowed mother in a type of cage. This was done because the old woman, while left alone in the house, had a habit of breaking things due to her frail condition. While the first response to a case like this can be to view this is a barbaric act, it should also be considered that there is no state welfare provision for home help for a family in this position (R.F. Harma interview with Action Aid Bangalore, December 2009).

The town of Vrindavan, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, northern India, serves as a barometer of the widows issue in South Asia. Research indicates it has a population of 16,000 widows who have been abandoned there or sought refuge in the community. Some have been there since becoming child widows. The situation in Vrindavan was captured in the documentary The Forgotten Women (Mehta 2008) and the photographer Fazal Sheikh has produced a photo essay with testimonies. Vrindavan also featured in an article on Indian widows in The Economist (2007).

In all instances of widow poverty documented in this Report, the outcomes of becoming widows would have been significantly improved had state welfare provision existed and operated in an effective manner. However, where welfare states exist, they must be properly managed or they can cease to have the required effect. An example of poor management in this respect is the Philippines between 1969 and 1988, where the government paid for access to private sector healthcare provision. However, no effective cost management was applied, allowing providers to increase prices to the point where the government was no longer able to provide effective healthcare and low-income recipients suffered. By 1988, the state covered only 30 percent of ‘average hospital costs.’ In India, the complete collapse of the public healthcare system in many parts of the country ‘for reasons other than under-funding’ has been noted in government research (Government of India 2005, Jeffery, Jeffery and Lion 1988, Haggard and Kaufman 2008: 121).

The effects of inadequate welfare state provision is given by this example from Egypt:

‘My son ran away from home and left me. He blames me for remarrying at my age. But tell me, what should I have done? I tried for two years to survive on my own after my husband died. I tried to work but could not find a part-time job, and I have no skills but to clean other people’s houses. I went to MOSA [the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs] and they gave me 34 [Egyptian] pounds a month. But I need more than 200 pounds to barely survive and to pay for the children’s school. I was unable to work. I really tried.’ (Sitohom, 32, widow who remarried) (Bibars 2001: 2)

Disinheritance and ‘grabbing’

Loss of the husband’s income driving widows and their children into extreme poverty is often compounded by disinheritance in developing countries (Tinker 1999: 9-11). This consists of the widow being dispossessed by her late husband’s family. While there are no statistics on disinheritance, a careful reading of the evidence indicates it is a widespread problem that affects several regions, notably South America (Deere and Léon 2001), Central America (Hamilton 2002), across Asia (Agarwal 1994 and 2007, Rao 2008, Krishnaraj 2007, Chowdhry 2009, Chaudhry 2001, Anh 1999, Gaetano and Jacka 2004), Sub-Saharan Africa (Asiimwe 2002) and the Middle East (Moors 1996). At its worst, it can involve not only property, but also the confiscation of children. Inheritance rights of women as widows are thus a major concern for the well-being of widows and their dependent children, and has been officially recognised by the UN agencies IFAD – the International Fund for Agricultural Development – and FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organization (IFAD 1998a and b, 2000 and 2009).

Disinheritance takes several forms, differing in combination across developing countries. It can include:

  • losing control of the family land, housing, ordinary household property and farm assets of all kinds;
  • outright eviction and complete loss of all property resulting in abandonment of the widow and her children (i.e. expulsion from the extended family);
  • eviction with complete property loss together with confiscation of the children by the husband’s family.

Why does disinheritance happen? The causes include

  • gender inequality that penalises women, based either on culture (“Good women do not inherit land” (Rao 2008) or, if they can, they must choose between freedom to re-marry by choice and losing their children to in-laws), or on practical considerations (difficulty in obtaining agricultural inputs),
  • economic pressures in rural areas e.g. decreasing farm size in areas of increasing population density,
  • formal or customary inheritance laws that do not allow widows to inherit their husbands’ property.

Most women in developing countries (except Latin America) are rural, supporting their families through subsistence agriculture. However, the land they work is typically owned and/or controlled by their husbands. Many newly-widowed women are instantly disinherited illegally and legally and therefore lose this source of non-cash income as well as the husband’s cash income. They become homeless, with their children or on their own. The risks to these women’s well-being include acute malnutrition, rape, prostitution, debilitating and fatal diseases, and exposure to adverse weather conditions (Tipple and Speak 2009: 135). If their children go with them, they face the same hazards, together with loss of education and the risk of child labour.

The Property Rights Alliance, an NGO based in Washington, D.C., produces an annual monitoring report on property rights around the world, known as the International Property Rights Index (IPRI). This includes a version that takes into account gender equality, and the relative lack thereof, in property rights between men and women. One of the gender variables in the index is inheritance. Out of ninety countries for which the index has data, representing nearly half of countries in the world, the 2009 IPRI report found that the most gender equal country in property rights was Finland, and the least gender equal was Chad. The top ten countries include all of Scandinavia, together with the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and Austria. The bottom eleven, from position 80 downwards, were Nepal, Pakistan, Cameroon, Zambia, Albania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Chad. The report also notes that:

‘Women’s equal rights to the free possession, enjoyment and disposal of property are a universal human right recognised by international human rights treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the recognition of ‘the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration [and] to have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes’ are universally considered as part of elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.’ (Property Rights Alliance 2009)

Disinheritance can apply in a loose and a strict sense. In the loose sense, in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, women may not have the civil legal or customary right to inherit their husbands’ land, but instead have the right to reside in the house where they lived with their husbands and have use rights to the land. Disinheritance in this case involves being evicted from the house and not continuing as a part of the husband’s wider family. The strict sense of disinheritance operates in the standard legal meaning of being entitled to inherit by law, but being prevented by any of a number of illegal blockages, typically applied by other male family members of the deceased husband. The end result is that male family members acquire the land and property of the widow. As well as Sub-Saharan Africa, this is a common occurrence in South Asia, and to some extent in Latin America, notwithstanding the latter’s generally more favourable legal inheritance provisions for widows (Deere and Léon 2001).

In the case of South Asia, with specific reference to northern states of India where most of the population lives and where widows deprivation is particularly intense, the following picture emerges. Writing in 1994, the researcher Bina Agarwal observed that ‘in practice….the fragmentary available evidence suggests that many [widows] who are eligible to inherit do not, and those that do inherit do so mostly on severely restricted terms… In most cases women do not inherit the absolute estate they are entitled to under contemporary Law’ (Agarwal 1994, see also Phadke 2008). More recent evidence for north east India published by Sindhu Phadke in 2008 finds that widows, whether Hindu or Muslim, are unable to inherit across most of the states in this region of the country in spite of laws specifying their entitlement. Indigenous ethnic groups in the north east typically follow strong patriarchal norms, resulting in widows not inheriting property. There are exceptions, such as among the Tripuri and Jamatia indigenous groups in Tripura state, and also in some other states, where some small inheritance concessions exist in social norms, but they are in the minority (Phadke 2008: 171). It should be borne in mind when drawing conclusions that we have not listed every exception in the present Report. Evidence published in 2009 for most of the rest of northern India (central and west) confirms that inheritance discrimination against widows is the general norm there:

‘…in the tenurial laws of northern India, namely, [the states of] Haryana, Himanchal Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (as also in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir), the specified rules of devolution of land show a strong preference for agnatic succession, with priority being given to agnatic males. In all these states the tenancy devolves in the first instance on the male line of descent. The widow inherits only in the absence of these male heirs… She also loses her land if she remarries or fails to cultivate it for a specified period, usually a year or two.’ (Chowdhry 2009: xxii, Parwez 2009, Devi and Arora 2009, Karna 2009, Hans, Mishra and Patel 2009, Brown and Chowdhury 2009, Jha 2009, Sethi 2009a, b, c and Arora and Singhi 2009)

In the northern Indian state of Jharkhand, near the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, an example from the Santal indigenous ethnic group illustrates the significance of the absence of male heirs, a widow’s young age and place of residence:

‘Married at the age of 20, widowed at 32, Jharna has two daughters aged ten and six years. After her husband’s death, she moved to her parents’ home in a nearby village. She earned wages through labour [to pay a man to plough her land] in order to cultivate her husband’s land, one acre in all. When she returned to Bagdiha to cultivate, however, she found that this land had been ploughed over by her husband’s brother and father. On being questioned, they denied her claims on grounds that she had only daughters, while her husband’s brother had a son. The community leaders held a meeting and decided in her favour. She started cultivating the land… Though she is prepared to pay the full wage for ploughing her land, they [her father and brother in law] ask other men in the tola [hamlet, small village] not to plough for her.’ (Rao 2008: 216)

Few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa ‘…have legislation in place designed to assure women’s access to land and property.’ As of 2006, Sweetman (2006) lists those that do as Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe (Sweetman 2006: 2; for Eritrea see Tekle 1998: 2; for Nigeria see Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2000). East Asian countries, particularly those with communist roots in the second half of the twentieth century, appear to have the most egalitarian legal systems of inheritance for widows, even though, as in many parts of the world, practice does not mirror the legal position.

Inheritance practices in Islamic societies are on paper more clear-cut, with Islamic inheritance rules applying, in principle, across international borders. These allocate a specific percentage of the husband’s estate – 12.5 percent of the husbands’ ‘property and assets accumulated during the marriage’ (Sonbol 2003: 159), and 25 percent if there are no children – to the widow. A clear quantitative standard is underpinned by religious authority, although in most cases, where widows come from low income backgrounds, the specified share will not be adequate to support livelihood.

However, Islamic inheritance rules and the assumed respect for the Qur’an do not always hold in practice: ‘one must always keep in mind the difference between law and custom when dealing with women in Islam, for often Islam grants them rights which social custom strips away’ (Amawi 2003: 157). Although internationally, there are local divergences from this rule of thumb, under customary law in Berber parts of Morocco and western Algeria, among Kurdish tribes in Turkey and among most tribes throughout the Middle East for most tribes, women have no inheritance rights at all. Muslim widows in the north east Indian state of Assam do not inherit (Phadke 2008: 155). In Bangladesh it has been said that, ‘…in the absence of a mature son, survivors [widows] are at substantial risk of economic decline during the transitional period [after the husbands’ death], because of the insecurity of property rights and the appalling vulnerability of women in this society’ (Cain 1988: 20, Owen 1996: 51). Examples from the Nablus area of the West Bank in Palestine follow the same pattern: widows can be disinherited if they are young, have small children (especially girls), and are not on good terms with in-laws. Often property, such as land, is distributed to other male in-laws in order to avoid it going to the widow (see section 5.3.4). The situation in Afghanistan is still many times worse for widows (see section 4.6). In Pakistan, research carried out in 2001 for a report on women and poverty focusing on parts of Sindh and Punjab provinces found that ‘very few widows, especially those with small or not male children, are allowed access to their deceased husband’s land or income. Whereas some women from landed backgrounds are at least taken care of by their relatives, many women, especially those with little backing from parents or siblings, are left to their own devices’. Numerous other examples of individual widows’ loss of husbands’ land were recorded in this research on Pakistan (Chaudhry 2010: 61-62, 90-91, 103-104). A 2009 survey on the reality of women’s inheritance rights in southern Punjab in Pakistan found that respondents most often cited a widespread social norm against women’s inheritance as the reason for women in general – not solely widows – not inheriting (Awaz Foundation Pakistan 2010: 12).

In Iran, the situation is generally no better:

‘…historically, Iranian women have experienced a sharp diminution of economic and social authority after their husbands’ death. Inheritance laws give a widow a very small proportion of her husbands’ wealth (one-quarter of moveable assets if they have no children and one-eighth if they do). The rest goes to the children, the parents, and the siblings of the deceased. In most cases, her son becomes the main provider for the widow.’ (Afary 2009: 303)

There are some examples – as with the Muslim matriarchal communities in Sumatra and Java in Indonesia – where customary inheritance practice works in favour of women (in contrast to a section of southern Sumatra, see material on East Asia below). It has been noted elsewhere in research that there is no uniformity in Islamic practice with respect to widows (Ruthven 2000: 158; Yalcin-Heckmann 1995: 220; Bremmer and Van den Bosch 1995, ch. 10).

Unpredictable outcomes can occur in Islamic societies, as shown in Lebanon in 2001:

‘a new law passed without discussion by the Lebanese cabinet has deprived Palestinians of any future house ownership in Lebanon and – in a clause that has astonished and appalled those who already own their own homes – has forbidden Palestinian men from passing on their property to their wives or next of kin when they die. Grieving Palestinian widows in Lebanon can now look forward to eviction from their family homes, which must, by law, be sold to Lebanese.’  (Fisk 2001)

In Palestine itself, it is crucial for widowed women to be on good terms with their late husbands’ relatives in order to inherit. Disinheritance often happens before the husband’s death by his redistribution of property to other family members – on his death there is no property left to be inherited (Moors 1996: 79).

More generally, it appears that there are striking parallels between rural northern India and rural Sub-Saharan Africa, as shown in this description of rural Jordanian society:

‘The right to inherit land as a widow has not always been easy for a woman to assert in practice. A widowed woman cannot alienate the land – in effect she merely acts as custodian of it until her sons grow up. A widow who has no children is unlikely to be able to claim the property in practice, exercising only the right to maintenance for herself from her husband’s family which custom has always permitted. If she has small children it may still be difficult for her to assert her right to take over the land on their behalf unless her own kinsmen are prepared to help her put up a fight. Otherwise her husband’s kinsmen are likely to put every obstacle in the way of her registering the land in her own name.’ (Shukri 1996:67)

Conversely, while the lack of economic growth is one of the key reasons Sub-Saharan African widows face disinheritance – with families viewing the death of a relative as the only opportunity for economic gain in their lives – in several East Asian countries the cause of disinheritance can sometimes be rapid economic growth and economic transformation. The economic transformation now taking place is succinctly presented by Irene Tinker and Gale Summerfield, two women’s development specialists who have provided some of the limited amount of research on women’s property rights in East Asia:

‘When the communist governments were set up in Vietnam, Laos and China, nominal rights were granted to women. The peasant leaders of these socialist movements realised the importance of the connection to land and granted land use titles to women as well as men; land was and is still officially owned by the state in these Asian countries. Housing in the countryside remained private, but in the city state-owned enterprises offered employees subsidised units at less than five percent of a worker’s salary; these could be allocated either to women or men but in reality were given out through the man’s work unit. Because China began its socialist phase in 1949, most urban households were living in subsidised units until recently; in Vietnam, which set up the socialist government in the North in the mid-1950s, and throughout the country in the 1970s, less than half the households were in state units in the North, fewer in the South. Laos, as a predominately rural country, had not yet introduced subsidised housing…’  (Tinker and Summerfield, 1999: 3)

The reform process in these three economies began in China in 1976, when communes were turned into family farms and non-state businesses and self-employment were permitted. In Laos and Vietnam it began in the 1980s, with land being returned to private control and exchange through sale (ibid.).

The adverse affect on widows of economic growth and transformation has been demonstrated in rural lowland Laos and rural China. In Laos, women are losing traditional matriarchal property rights to male relatives because of flawed government land reforms. This has been reported as resulting from the lower education levels of women compared to men, and from gender-divisive bureaucratic procedures (Deere and Léon 2001, ch. 8). Forms to register land require completion by the head of household, and some men use their greater literacy to deliberately disinherit their female family members. This underlines the importance of literacy and education for women’s well-being (Viravong 1999: 153-161, Ireson-Doolittle 1999: 149). The other key factor is gender-insensitive government departments assuming there can only be a single household head and that this person is the husband, thus ruling out the concept of joint ownership of property in marriage (Deere and Léon 2001): ‘… all-male teams from the strongly male-dominated Department of Forestry register household land, including the land inherited by the wife from her parents, in the name of the ‘head of household,’ who is always understood to be male unless there is no adult male in the household’ (Ireson-Doolittle 1999: 149). Thus, once widowed, women even stand to lose property that was already their own.

In Laos, the land titling process has been established ‘in response to pressure and funding from multilateral lending agencies and bilateral Western aid donors’ (ibid.). While these international donors have indicated the need for, and their commitment to, gender-sensitive development programmes and policies, they have not exercised the required level of oversight in programme implementation. Male bias with regard to international multilateral donor property titling programmes was also experienced in Latin America (where joint ownership in marriage does occur in several countries). Compounding international agencies’ ineffectiveness in ensuring that the implications of gender discrimination are addressed, is so-called ‘gender fatigue’ (Jones 2007), increasingly cited by practitioners against a backdrop of deliberate blocking of pro-women policies, including those focused on widows, by many developing country governments (R.F. Harma interview with intergovernmental agency gender specialist, 2010).

Research on inheritance practices affecting Cambodian widows is scant. A 1968 source quoted by Susan Lee (2006) implies that widows had full inheritance rights to their husbands’ property and typically do inherit (Lee 2006: 25, citing Ebihara 1968: 114). However, the family as an organisational unit was abolished under the Khmer Rouge regime, when the concept of inheritance was irrelevant. A 2001 reference states without elaboration that ‘…in Cambodia, where laws provided for the legal ownership of land, widows encountered problems gaining legal possession because of their low social status and the indifference of local authorities’ (Kumar 2001: 16).

In Vietnam, the government’s land reform process explicitly recognised the right of women to be joint landowners with husbands. However, women’s lack of awareness of the benefits of joint ownership caused some to miss out on joint ownership and thus a potentially improved situation once widowed (Tinker 1999: 19). As in Laos, the general bias (on the part of government and husbands) towards the idea that the head of household must be male, has resulted in 80 percent of Vietnamese rural households being male-headed in the latter 1990s. Vietnam used the same ownership-head of household criterion in its land-titling process as Laos (Anh 1999: 109).

In rural China, while the Chinese constitution guarantees the right of women to inherit property, ‘such provisions are seldom enforced’. Specifically, ‘according to the traditional clan and virilocal residence customs, women have no right of inheritance’ (Weisha 1999: 136). Referring to the period up to 1990, it has been observed that ‘widows in reform-era rural China still had difficulty claiming family property’ (Hershatter 2007: 25). There appears still to be a strong and widespread social norm against widows’ independence in property inheritance and remarriage, also reported to exist in Taiwan (Gilmartin 1990: 210, for Taiwan see Kung 1997). Chinese widows are expected to remain in their original marital home or with the families of sons, who take on the head of household role when their mothers become widows. However, the massive economic transformation that has taken place and is continuing in China has produced more concrete burdens for rural Chinese widows, which are addressed in section 5.2.2.

These conclusions on East Asia should however be treated with caution, given the evidence from southern Sumatra about the customary law applied in the Batak community, denying widows rights to inheriting the husband’s property. There is evidence of violence perpetrated by sons, and of sons stripping widowed mothers of all assets and possessions based on customary law, although the evidence is not sufficient to determine how widespread these practices are. Indonesia, like other countries, has more than one type of law in operation, with different outcomes for widows’ inheritance. Customary law operates as decribed. Formal or written law exists in two forms: the Civil Code introduced by the former colonial power, the Netherlands, and Islamic law. In addition there is the Marriage Act, which sits outside the other three systems and specifies widows’ inheritance rights (Irianto 2002: 92-96 and 2003; Ihromi, Kriekhof and Irianto 1996). Case law meanwhile is also developing as a fourth type of law. This is referred to as ‘judge made law’ (Irianto 2002) or legal precedent, drawing creatively on the three existing systems to deal with particular issues as they arise.

Just as we must be cautious in our conclusions on the first group of East Asian countries described above since the rest of East Asia may not be the same, the same applies to Indonesia. While the Sumatran study illustrates serious problems for widows, a study of Java shows that, notwithstanding land titling being in the name of the husband, the social norm, as in law, is that property is jointly owned by husband and wife (Brown and Purwanti 2002: 2). It is also worth noting, for inheritance purposes, that ‘nearly all of rural Java is Muslim.’ However, based on an opt-out rule – see consensus by heirs in previous footnote – Javanese in practice use customary law for widows’ inheritance: ‘Under customary practice, a surviving spouse generally inherits all marital property and separate property if the couple’s children are still young. If the children are adults and the surviving spouse is elderly, all of the decedent’s property passes directly to the children. It is generally understood that if the property passes to the children while one parent is still alive, the children remain responsible for caring for their surviving parent’ (ibid.).

As regards East Asia, available English language research offers no indication that widows suffer  eviction through disinheritance by relatives as in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In practical terms widows are not disinherited, in that they do not lose the use of and access to home and land, but they are not permitted unilaterally to alter the constitution of their property. There is however technical disinheritance, as in Laos, Vietnam, and part of Indonesia.

The available evidence on East Asia indicates that widows do not suffer the symbolic bias prevalent in Hindu communities of South Asia, such as inauspiciousness due to perceived immoral conduct in a past life, nor the criminal exploitation of assets and supernatural suspicions seen in Sub-Saharan African societies. By comparison, East Asian widows appear to benefit from a higher cultural status, However, there is evidence of suspicion about their sexual availability, covered later in this report.

While the evidence suggests that disinheritance is relatively common in many developing countries across the world, the majority of available data shows that the most serious violations of widows’ human rights in this regard occur in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Within these two regions, most of the data applies to southern and eastern regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and to India. The majority of references in a research publication providing and annotated bibliography on women’s inheritance in developing countries are for Sub-Saharan Africa and the second most referenced area is India. Almost all of these references were for a small sub-set of countries: Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Physical eviction from the family is a common feature of the disinheritance ordeal in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, with serious consequences for widows and their children. A study on widows working as prostitutes in Calcutta in north east India illustrates:

‘Munni is a twenty-four year old widow from Bihar. She has a nine-year old daughter from her marriage. Less than a year after her husband’s death, her in-laws threw her and her daughter out of the house. She travelled to Calcutta as she had a friend there who managed to get her a job working as a housemaid. The position was a live-in job, so she and her daughter had a place to live as well as the income….[after some time] her employer – the man of the house – started sexually harassing her. For months she had to submit to his sexual advances….One day his wife discovered what was happening and immediately threw Munni and her daughter out onto the street. For a while they begged on the streets. One day a woman approached them and brought Munni and her daughter to Kalighat red light [prostitution] area. Munni began practising as a sex worker….She is resigned to her life here but does not want her daughter to join the profession. After paying her daily room rent….and paying the police their regular bribe to leave her alone, she is left with enough to employ an ayah [child minder for her daughter] in the evenings when she works. Her immediate problem now is a landlord who troubles her a lot, who has beaten and raped her when she has been unable to pay the rent.’ (Chen 2000: 33, citing Sleightholme 1995: 4)

For rural Sub-Saharan African women, disinheritance is a crucial issue, with a level of seriousness not typically seen elsewhere in the world. (The region with the closest resemblance is South Asia.) As elsewhere, Sub-Saharan African widows suffer from an absence of effective alternative livelihoods when they lose subsistence agriculture and husbands’ cash incomes. With respect to property, what makes the Sub-Saharan widows’ situation stand out is the high risk of eviction by relatives on becoming a widow. This leads to migration in a destitute state with only the clothes they are wearing, as often all property down to cooking utensils is confiscated. Their chances of rebuilding their lives and those of their children are further undermined by the HIV/AIDS pandemic if sex work becomes the only option for immediate survival. Disinheritance and property and asset theft have also been reported among urban widows in Nigeria: ‘family members [of the deceased husband] may have moved into the [widow’s] home, or taken the car, or cleaned out the family bank account’ (see Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2000). The chances of disinheritance and destitution are higher for young widows with no children, or with no sons, as shown in this example in Nigeria:

‘…if the man died without the couple having had children, it would be much more likely that the family [of the deceased husband] would challenge the widow’s inheritance rights… In rural settings, widows are at a particular disadvantage where the husband’s family is much more likely to go directly to traditional courts [using customary law], which ‘always rule against widows.’ In an urban setting the regular courts [civil courts] may rule in her favour, but the widow will often face the obstacles of getting the property back from the family.’ (ibid.)

Similar evidence of the bias of ‘traditional’ courts is found on the other side of Africa, in a study of rural Tanzanian widows (Kessy, Makaramba and Kiria 2008: x). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a widow states: ‘here widows are treated very badly. Normally what happens is that the family take the children and all the belongings, and send the widow back to her family’ (Guardian 2008).

Kenyan widow Theresa Murunga recounted in 2002 that ‘My in-laws took everything – mattresses, blankets, utensils. They chased me away like a dog. I was voiceless’ (Sweetman 2006: 1). Another Kenyan widow tells her story:

When Susan Wagitangu’s parents died, her brothers inherited the family land. ‘My sister and I didn’t inherit,’ said Wagitangu, 53-year-old Kikuyu woman. ‘Traditionally, in my culture, once a woman gets married, she does not inherit from her father.’ The assumption is that once a woman gets married she will be given land where she got married. This was not the case for Wagitangu: when her husband died, her brothers-in-law forced her off that homestead and took her cows. Wagitangu now lives in a Nairobi slum. ‘Nairobi has advantages,’ she said. ‘If I don’t have food, I can scavenge in the garbage dump.’ (Human Rights Watch 2003)

A far starker tradition in many Sub-Saharan African rural societies is that widows are literally ‘inherited’, through forced re-marriage to a brother of the deceased husband (Conroy and Whiteside 2006: 55; Potash 1986). The purpose behind widow inheritance, not to be confused with widows’ property inheritance, is to keep the property of the husband and the husband’s children, particularly male children, inside the husband’s family. Children have economic and cultural value: they continue the inter-generational reciprocity of family care and support, and they ensure continuation  of the family lineage.

In other cases, widows have been known not to remarry and to remain within the husband’s family. The evidence suggests it can be possible for a widow to return to her parents’ home, depending on the practices of individual ethnic groups (Salamone 1986). Betty Potash has emphasised that there is great heterogeneity in the practices affecting widows in Sub-Saharan Africa, so one model of behaviour cannot be assumed to apply uniformly across the continent. Brydon and Chant make the same observation: ‘…the range of patterns of land-holding is as varied here [in Sub-Saharan Africa] as the range of kinship and inheritance patterns, with or without an overlay of Islam, Christianity or modern ‘bureaucracy’ (state control)’ (Brydon and Chant 1989: 83). However, the evidence suggests that Sub-Saharan African widows more often do not have a choice about where to live and whether or not to remarry.

In Kenya we can see differences between ethnic groups. For the Nandi, it is rare for widows to remarry the deceased husband’s brother – a custom known as levirate – and ‘control over resources through the household complex enables a widow to refuse the levirate.’ The Luo on the other hand require it: ‘women are expected to continue bearing children [i.e. to remarry]…. a widow’s status and her security in old age depend on having many sons’ (Potash 1986: 10-11).

Disinheritance and levirate have become aggravating issues for widows as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the dynamics of which are further described in section 5.1.2.

Disinheritance is made possible in a significant number of South Asian and Sub-Saharan countries which are lacking in provisions for protecting widows and where laws have not been standardised, thus allowing the simultaneous application of statutory, customary and religious law (Von Struensee 2004: 4; Horrell and Krishnan 2007: 1353-1354).

Poor implementation and enforcement of modern legal systems, combined with widespread ignorance of their existence and processes among the rural population in the least developed parts of the world, ensure that customary law operates by default in most Sub-Saharan African countries, as reported in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe (ibid.; Nytimes.com 2004; Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2000; Kessy et al 2008). Appropriation of inheritance by the husband’s family and forcible eviction of the widow from her home and land and now illegal in Namibia, but the practice persists due to a weak legal system (Thomas 2008: 73).

This is against a background where most countries have adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including the provision that this supersedes all domestic law.
The relevant CEDAW provision for widows’ inheritance is Article 16(h), paragraph 74 (Forward-Looking Strategies), which states: ‘State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, enjoyment and disposition of property.’

The existence and ratification of CEDAW in many countries, together with the existence of modern law, have however offered little protection to widows, where affordability and lack of enforcement undermine the rule of law. There is also outright obstruction of gender-neutral policies by politicians in many countries in spite of their official declarations to the contrary. Uganda is a notable example (Asiimwe 2002: 125-126). Bina Agarwal, a specialist in women’s property rights also observes regarding South Asia that ‘The idea of ‘command’ over property implies not merely rights in law, but also effective rights in practice. The gap between inheritance law and its practice is especially wide. Indian women legally enjoy significant inheritance rights (even if unequal to men’s). In practice, only a small percentage inherit. This is especially true of immoveable property such as land or a house’ (Agarwal 2007: 219).

In Sub-Saharan Africa, widows’ disinheritance is referred to in a form of Pan-African dialect by the term ‘grabbing’. This describes relatives’ immediate action, on the death of the husband, to evict the widow from her home and plot of land and incorporate it into their holdings. This is property theft in practice if not in law: in some Sub-Saharan African countries such as Swaziland, widows’ rights to inheritance or to own property at all is not recognised in law.

‘Grabbing’ widows’ property is also reported as widespread across Bangladesh, northern India and Pakistan; evidence also exists in the West Bank in Palestine (Moors 1996: 80). ‘Grabbing’ can take a different form when the husband has more than one widow. Resource value is diminished and even the prospect of any inheritance is in question when more than one wife exists, with the original wife sometimes having no knowledge of additional wives when men migrate for work and have married again. Multiple wives are common in several regions, including South Asia and the Arab states, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Widows’ loss of land and property has also been documented as a result of natural disaster and war, when they are displaced as refugees from their homes (Fitzpatrick 2008; Baldauf 2005; Owen 1996: 175).

With eviction often the result of resisting forced re-marriage to the husband’s brother, this ‘safety net’, which retains the land and property within the husband’s family is often the only clear option for her to maintain her livelihood. It poses particular risks in the context of HIV/AIDS. Widows or husbands’ brothers are often infected, so continued transmission of the virus is assured (see section 5.3.4).

Victims of disinheritance or property-grabbing include child widows such as Kunese, age 16, from Tanzania, who recounts her experience:

‘I was married when I was about 13 years old; it was through an arranged marriage by my father. I stayed with my husband for three years and then I experienced the trauma and grief of his death. I cared for my bedridden husband for some months and no relatives helped. After the death of my husband, my brother-in-law evicted me from the matrimonial home and squandered all the matrimonial property. I moved to my father’s hut with my two children. We slept on the floor. I begged from neighbours for my daily food and one child was often sick.’ (Moors 1996: 80)

An in-depth study of widows in rural Kenya shows that land grabbing is not a recent phenomenon and has been increasing over time. It appears to date from the government land reforms that followed independence. The study provides examples of evictions and land theft from widows from the early 1970s. Many affected widows had written, with help if illiterate, to authorities locally and in Nairobi:

‘I came across nearly two hundred such letters from widows to the district officers and to the Ministry of Lands and Settlements, all of which expressed their strong dissatisfaction with land consolidation and registration [i.e. reform]. The process was obviously not working out as intended – partly because bribery and corruption hindered the fair and equitable distribution of land, but also because the intensive labour involved in cultivating the larger plots made it difficult for widows to achieve any success…. when Jedida Karani could not get her land adjudicated because the officers preferred to serve those who had paid them bribes, she asked her daughter to write a letter of complaint to [Member of Parliament Peter] Kibisu. Karani informed him that she felt she was being discriminated against because she was a widow and had no money for bribes. By the end of the 1980s, many widows still do not have their land registered. A national survey showed that fewer than 30 percent of peasants in western Kenya had title deeds. Of those, only five percent could afford to plant the more lucrative crops such as tea or coffee. Jedida Karani was one of the fortunate few who managed to register her land. Close to 70 years old, Karani still looks youthful and continues to earn a decent income by growing tea. Many widows were not so lucky.’ (Magoke-Mhoja 2008)

Evidence from rural Tanzania shows a high proportion of widows, 62 percent in one locality, when faced with the loss of access to their deceased husbands’ property, had to resort to clearing new land – previously unfarmed wilderness – for cultivation (Van Vuuren 2003: 126).

The appropriation of widows’ inheritance can, in the context of limited economic opportunities, be seen as an attempt to improve family options. Partha Dasgupta, an Indian development economist who combines sociological, demographic and economic perspectives, has observed that social norms survive only as long as the economic systems that support them (Dasgupta 1993: 324).

Duncan Green, former head of research at Oxfam GB, points out that ‘without legal rights to own property, regardless of marital status, most women living in poverty in developing countries depend on their relationship with men to deliver [a home and place to work]. Hence [female] livelihoods are precarious. If the relationship sours, or if a man falls ill and dies, how are they and their children to survive?’ (Green 2008: 77-78).

While the effects of property on the well-being of widows is rarely mentioned, high level international policy planners explicitly acknowledge the centrality of property rights in relation to women generally (Quisumbing and Meinzen-Dick 2001: 1).

Property rights regimes with more favourable outcomes for widows are to be found in parts of Central and South America. While these parts of the world remain challenging places for women in general, and the inheritance regimes are not perfect, they do offer greater security than elsewhere in the developing world (Deere and Léon 2001).

Countries can be grouped by type of inheritance regime. Unlike other parts of the developing world, where the formal use of wills either does not exist or is overriden by customary law, in Central and South America it makes a difference whether the husband dies with or without a will. When considering inheritance outcomes for widows (or women in consensual unions, a state which is formally recognised in the civil law of most of these countries), the starting point is therefore whether the deceased left a will or died intestate. Only after this, we look at the inheritance regime of the individual country (ibid.).

Countries differ as to the ‘testamentary freedom’ the will writer has for allocating items to individual recipients, and the type of marital regime in place. Some rely solely on testamentary freedom, while others rely on the type of marital regime in combination with testamentary freedom. When a husband’s will does not leave anything to the wife, some countries provide for a discretionary inheritance based on the widow’s ‘…economic need and the relative economic position of husband and wife’ (ibid.).

Table 5.2 is based on data from Deere and Léon 2001, which excludes Argentina, Belize, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay. It shows that when a will exists in, for example, Bolivia, one fifth of the property can be freely given to any individuals, while the rest is automatically allocated to the living children and spouse (for the purposes of this Report, the widow). Where it refers to ‘marital share’, this is allocated to the widow where the husband has not made any allocation in the will. The actual marital share depends on the widow’s economic need ‘…and the relative economic position of husband and wife’. Next, the first rank order for inheritors of people who die intestate designates an automatic equal share to each individual listed, for example, in Bolivia the children, the spouse, and the parents each receive an equal share. Some countries, like Brazil, stipulate that in intestate deaths, 25 percent is allocated to the widow. The second rank applies when the deceased individual has no living children, in Brazil among other countries. However, in Brazil and Guatemala, the type of marital regime type, or the default marital regime (defined below) where none has been stipulated by the couple, critically determines the inheritance outcome for widows. In Table 5.2 this has been stated using Deere and Léon’s work. Since they do not specify the implications of marital regime in Brazil and Guatemala, the entries for these countries are incomplete.

In summary, Deere and Léon state that in Central and South America, where a will exists, ‘the civil codes most favourable to widows are those of Bolivia and Peru, for testamentary freedom is restricted in their and their children’s favour, irrespective of the size of the spouses’ patrimony’. They continue: ‘in the other countries with provisions protecting spouses (Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua), whether the widow is guaranteed a share of her husband’s estate if he has willed otherwise depends on her economic need and the relative economic position of husband and wife.’ Honduras and Nicaragua have relatively little protection for widows, allowing 75 percent property to be willed without restriction and providing only a marital share for widows. Four countries have complete testamentary freedom: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. For widows, the significance of this ‘freedom’ is that the widow’s property share is entirely at the discretion of the husband. The likely consequences are summed up by Deere and Léon: ‘Testamentary freedom probably did open the way for greater inequality in property ownership by sex and, due to gender roles, may also have enhanced differences in the composition of inheritance, with sons favoured by the inheritance of land.’

Gender roles also impact equality of property ownership in rural Costa Rica, where widows are often forced to move to urban locations where it is easier for them to establish livelihoods, since in rural areas, subsistence needs are ‘as determined by a judge’ (ibid.). Brazil and Guatemala provide complicated options, some very unfavourable to widows (see Table 5.2). What is clear is that heavy gender segregation creates great difficulty conducting agriculture without male family or spousal input (Chant 1997: 132).

El Salvador provides greater security for widows whose husbands died intestate, similar to Bolivia and Peru. While widows of intestate husbands in the other South and Central American countries considered here receive a marital share, the size of such share in Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua, means that in practice none of the inheritance options allow for widows in those countries ‘…maintaining control of the family farm or business – that is, providing for their own economic autonomy’ (ibid.).

HIV/AIDS and famine

The economist Jeffrey Sachs recounts a scene of economic devastation of rural livelihoods and resulting human cost in the wake of HIV/AIDS while on a work visit to rural Malawi in 2004:

‘It is still midmorning in Malawi when we arrive at a small village, Nthandire, about an hour outside of Lilongwe, the capital. This year has been a lot more difficult than usual because the rains have failed. The crops are withering in the fields that we pass. If the village were filled with able-bodied men, who could have built rainwater-collecting units on rooftops and in the fields, the situation would not be so dire. But as we arrive in the village, we see no able-bodied young men at all. In fact, older women and dozens of children greet us, but there is not a young man or woman in sight.

‘Where, we ask, are the workers? Out in the fields? The aid worker who has led us to the village shakes his head sadly and says no. Nearly all are dead. The village has been devastated by AIDS…There are just five men between twenty and forty years of age left in the village…

‘The presence of death in Nthandire has been overwhelming in recent years. The grandmothers whom we meet are guardians for their orphaned grandchildren. Each woman has her story of how her sons and daughters died, leaving her to bear the burden of raising and providing for five or ten, sometimes 15 orphaned grandchildren. The margin of survival is extraordinarily narrow; sometimes it closes entirely.

‘One woman we meet in front of her mud hut has 15 orphaned grandchildren. As she begins to explain her situation to us, she first points to the withered crops that have died in the fields next to her hut. Her small farm plot, a little more than an acre in all, would be too small to feed her family even if the rains had been plentiful. The soil nutrients have been depleted so significantly in this part of Malawi that crop yields reach only about a half-ton per acre, about one-third of normal. This year, because of the drought, she will get almost nothing. She reaches into her apron and pulls out a handful of semi-rotten, bug-infested millet, which will be the basis for the gruel she will prepare for the meal that evening. It will be the one meal the children have that day.

‘I ask her about the health of the children. She points to a child of about four and says that the girl contracted malaria the week before. The woman had carried her grandchild on her back for the six miles to the local hospital. When they got there, there was no quinine, the anti-malarial medicine, available that day. With the child in high fever, the two were sent home and told to return the next day. In a small miracle, when they returned after another six-mile trek, the quinine had come in, and the child responded to treatment and survived. It was a close call though. More than 1 million African children, and perhaps as many as 3 million, succumb to malaria each year.’ (Sachs 2004: 5-7)

Poverty, and widows’ attempts to escape it, has been a contributing factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS when their only option to earn income is to resort to sex work. AIDS has also been a major cause of widows’ poverty by causing widowhood at younger ages, where women either have no children, particularly no sons, or only young children. This in turn has increased the incidence of disinheritance, with relatives evicting widows who have no adult sons to inherit their husbands’ property (Nytimes.com 2004).

Fishermen’s widows on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania have become live-in sex workers. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa this is referred to as ‘exchange’ sex work, where the transaction is often in kind and with a regular client-partner, as opposed to ‘classic sex work where a person openly solicits sex [for cash]’ (Southern African Research and Documentation Centre 2005; Uwakwe 1997: 40; Harma 2009).

While the more affluent sex workers who interact with white collar professional clients often understand the need for, and can afford, safe-sex precautions, the prostitutes on Lake Victoria are from low education backgrounds, and in tackling their immediate concern for food and shelter, many had become infected with HIV/AIDS through their fishermen clients (Sauper 2004; Appleton 2000; Izumi  2006: 5-6 citing Bio-medical Research and Training Institute 2000).

The combination of ‘exchange sex’ and itinerant migrant labour has been shown to be particularly dangerous with respect to HIV/AIDS and female, landless, commercial agricultural workers (as distinct from women working on their own plot of land). In Zimbabwe, because of the precarious nature of this work, which does not offer settled accommodation, these women find themselves cohabiting with male farm workers. They become de facto widows in this context before they die themselves. Research shows both these men and women farm workers have significantly higher infection rates than local urban populations. The infection rate for farm women was 64 percent, and for local urban women 44 percent. Similarly, a high degree of widow migration to and from urban areas is reported in the Kagera region of Tanzania, for the purpose of saving up to buy land for subsistence agriculture. Sex work has been a relatively lucrative option for women engaged in this process (Smith 2001: 155-171).

Elsewhere, recent famines unrelated to HIV/AIDS have left many women widowed, but no data on famine widows exists. In 1992, at least 200,000 people died from lack of food; Sudan faced famine in 1993 and 1998; Ethiopia in 2003 with a serious food crisis in 2008; in late 2010, the potential for famine in East Africa was once again highly advanced. North Korea from 1994-98 faced a severe famine as a result of a collapsing economy and simultaneous natural disaster, with estimates of deaths ranging between 300,000 and 2.4 million. Qualitative accounts of widows in these calamities exist (Noland 2001; see also Demick 2010: 133-173).

Macroeconomic catastrophe

In addition to the economic collapse instigated by HIV/AIDS as illustrated by Sachs above, macroeconomic catastrophe is playing out its inexorable, grinding logic elsewhere. The precarious position of widows from low-skilled and unemployment prone social strata is compounded by dysfunctional national or sector economies, ineffectual education systems and international trade policies that militate against good employment opportunities for low-skilled women. When trade policy was changed in the Caribbean without regard to its welfare and poverty implications, or to the proximity of these islands to the heart of the international drug trade in South America, the macroeconomic effects were widespread but fell heaviest on women and widows. ‘Trade liberalization, the introduction of structural adjustment programmes, and the loss of preferential treatment for the Windward Islands’ bananas [through the creation of European Union single market trade restrictions] all contributed to an increase in poverty and to a deterioration in the quality of life….the banana industry [had] provided employment and contributed to sustainable livelihoods for large numbers of women and their families’. The change in tariff regime caused a 20 percent fall in banana exports between 1991 and 1992 (Ellis 2003: 6; 117).

The application and impact of these and other international trade policies is felt across developing countries dependent on agriculture exports as their main source of income. There are at least three aggravating factors at play in this: first, western tariff regimes block exports from developing countries; second, developed countries sell very cheap surplus grain on the world market, facilitated by massive subsides comparable in size to the combined aid budgets of developed countries and the United Nations; and third, developing countries are forced, through periodic trade rounds, bilateral negotiations, or the World Bank, to open their markets to cheap, subsidised western agricultural imports. A similar process is at work where cheap developing country manufactured imports destroy manufacturing jobs in developed countries, made possible by cheap, low-skill labour (Dowden 2008: 268; see also Oxfam International 2002 and Kohr 2005).

The combined effect of these three elements, or unfair terms of trade, has caused a documented depression in agricultural sectors of developing countries that have been forced to open their markets to imports, with serious implications for widows’ deprivation in these countries. Many of these are least developed countries (LDCs) and so are least likely to be able to diversify their economies. Badly designed western development aid has contributed to macroeconomic instability and its effects on the most economically vulnerable segments of countries, including widows. Tanzania is a well documented example, showing negative cumulative effects over the period of the 1970s to 1990s (Oxfam International 2002).

What makes the effects of HIV/AIDS, international trade policy and rich-country agricultural subsidies so devastating for widows in rural areas is that they often find themselves in an unsustainable position with exhausted soils, progressively smaller plot sizes caused by pressures of population growth, deforestation, and the subdivision of land between family members (Wangwe 2004). Low economic growth further exacerbates this situation (Pender and Gebremedhin 2006; Alinovi, Hemrich and Russo 2008). Small plot size and population growth are particularly relevant in densely populated countries such as Bangladesh and Rwanda, or in densely populated regions such as the northern highlands of Ethiopia.

Rural widows may also find themselves worse off as the result of economic reforms and the resultant growth benefiting other sectors of the economy (e.g. manufacturing in urban areas), as in China, Laos and Vietnam.

With regard to African agriculture generally, it has been observed that ‘[the reality] is that of a single woman whose primary means of income is a one-hectare plot of unimproved land on an eroded hillside. From each harvest she must provide for virtually all the needs of her family throughout the year, including clothing, healthcare, education costs and housing.’ It follows that, ‘there is a single consistent outcome from an agricultural economy based on inadequate fallows and extensive, low-input cultivation – crop yields decline and soils erode’. An additional little-known reason for the apparent failure of smallholder agriculture in Senegal was identified as the destruction of a cooperative system of reciprocal farm labour. The introduction of modern methods caused the disintegration of this system, resulting in individual households having to rely solely on their own labour. Western economists were observed to have misunderstood this system, resulting in the use of inappropriate agricultural programmes. This has had implications for widows, causing the sort of conditions that have led to disinheritance of widows elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa (Blackie and Conroy 2006: 88-89, citing DeVries and Toenissen 2001). Similar conditions exist in South Asia, with the widely discussed issue of rural decline across sections of India (Mackintosh 1989: 63-66), where farm size has also decreased, groundwater is over exploited, and commercial farming of cash crops has proved difficult for many, resulting in the farmer suicide rates discussed earlier (Section 4.4).

Widows can face culturally imposed problems to earning their livelihood when left as the sole farmer, as evidenced in the example from Jharkhand State, India earlier. It is seen elsewhere in the northern highland area of Tigray, Ethiopia, where female-headed farms face ‘a cultural taboo against women ploughing and threshing… As some female-headed households have had the need and courage to challenge such norms… this can be difficult [as] such women may be subject to ridicule or intimidation’ (Krishnaraj 2007: 41-69). This is one reason why the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has adopted a ‘Gender Strengthening Programme’ (Pender and Gebremedhin 2006: 123 and footnote 26 referencing Aday et al 2001).

A food crisis across the Horn of Africa involving Ethiopia, parts of northern Kenya, most of Somalia and parts of Sudan is aggravated by lack of rain, little in the way of irrigation systems, and soils with extreme low fertility. By 2007, about 40 percent of agricultural soil fertility around the world was seriously degraded. In Central America, 75 percent of agricultural land is degraded, in Sub-Saharan Africa 20 percent, across Asia 11 percent. Because soil fertility degradation is a dynamic process – getting progressively worse – if the present trend continues in Sub-Saharan Africa, the land will only be able to feed 25 percent of the population by 2025 (IFAD 2000). Globally the number of people without adequate food – described as ‘undernourished’, a term that covers mild-to-acute malnutrition – has been growing and was estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to have reached 1.02 billion individuals in 2007-08, up from 848 million in 2003-05) (FAO 2008 and 2009).

In China we are seeing the demise of the small scale farmer resulting from economic development biased against the agricultural sector, with implications for older rural women and widows (Murphy 2004). Rural China has seen young people moving in their tens of millions to the large industrial manufacturing centres in the east (Chang 2008). This has meant that widows, particularly older and elderly mothers, have been left to run the farms on their own. Researchers Jackson, Liu and Woo recently stated that, ‘in China… the modernisation project and market economy… have often worsened the economic situation of older, uneducated and rural women’ (Jackson, Liu and Woo 2008: 13, citing Lee 2005, Liu 2007 and Pun 2005). This is partly reflected in the unbalanced geographic labour force distribution in China. Urban areas have seen the enforcement of the one-child-policy, while rural areas were largely exempt. With the rapid onset of large-scale manufacturing, there was probably insufficient labour supply in urban areas of eastern China. Simultaneously, the reform period has seen the collapse of the collective farm system following the effective introduction of expensive farm machinery. This has caused considerable hardship among small farmers, particular widowed farm women, who find it difficult to carry out all the necessary land preparation activities because they lack the machinery or the technical knowledge of former collective farm operatives, or through general lack of labour and financial capital. While remittances from children in manufacturing partly compensates, the land widows have taken out of production for the reasons cited often cancels this out (Murphy 2004; David and Wang 2009).

The picture of widows remaining on the land while family members migrate to urban areas to work in East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa contrasts with that in Costa Rica, where widows often migrate to urban areas themselves ‘…because they cannot sustain rural livelihoods without men’ (Chant 1997: 132).


The effects of war and large-scale civil unrest present many of the factors underlying the particular deprivation of widows already described. In addition they produce a new set of factors, thus producing a highly intensified form of deprivation.

The standard factors are loss of income, housing and livelihood options. Additional factors produced by war are intensified threats to personal safety from soldiers and armed criminals, either to life or through sexual assault, including the threat of HIV/AIDS, and the risk of starvation and other acute illnesses. Widows are often forced to resort to prostitution – what UNHCR refers to as ‘survival sex’ (264). If they survive the conflict, they may face government diktats as to how they should live their lives as war widows. Financial incentives are sometimes put in place to force them to remarry or live in poverty if they refuse.

Governments can demand excessive proof of the husband’s death before awarding compensation, proof that in many circumstances is impossible to obtain.

War forces widows into poverty and destitution even when they are not evicted from their homes in conflict locations: it may be too dangerous, either from on-going fighting or conflict-induced criminal activity such as looting, robbery, murder, random torture and rape, for women to seek paid work. Supply chains may have broken down locally or even nationally, making it difficult or impossible for goods and services to be traded. Conversely, a set of different goods and services can arise in war settings, many detrimental to long-term human development prospects, especially for widows and their children. Prostitution and the supply of logistical services for fighting forces are some of the most salient aspects of the war economy; children may even enter the conflict as combatants – a form of economic resourcing for armed groups in many developing countries. All the other risks widows face still pertain: lack of male guardians signalling that widows are available for various kinds of sexual exploitation; loss of husbands’ and partners’ incomes resulting in poverty; loss of land through disinheritance; loss of social status leading to being forcefully removed from land by relatives or strangers; and finally, becoming international or internally displaced refugees. Displacement is often the most dangerous aspect of war widows’ conflict experience, as the journey to safety can be full of threats, and living conditions often little better than those they escape.

After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, a mass exodus of the Hutu population into eastern Congo, then called Zaire, resulted in a huge refugee camp at the town of Goma. Systematic clean water and sanitation facilities could not be provided in time to prevent a massive cholera and dysentery epidemic that killed an estimated 50,000 people (Enloe 2010:58; Goma Epidemiology Group 1994). The quality of camps depends on geographic location, funding, and the ability of international humanitarian agencies to reach displaced people. Once displaced in camps without a normal home support network or livelihood, widows become dependent on aid, if it is available. Often however, elderly widows are not fit enough to collect the aid provided.

In 2007, Oxfam reported that ‘an increasing proportion of the Iraqi population are in dire need of humanitarian aid, including food’ (Oxfam International 2009), with an estimated one million widows living under these conditions. An Iraqi account starkly illustrates this:

‘I remember one day when I was shopping with my mother, there was one woman who needed to buy flour. She was a widow. We had known her husband, who was killed by Saddam’s soldiers. No one wanted to lend her money. She was so desperate because she had several children to feed. She started shouting: ‘Do you want to have sex with me so that I can buy flour?’ People told her never to say that again, and they gave her money to buy flour’.

This acute humanitarian crisis has its roots in the post-1992 sanctions period. It has been noted that prior to this, ‘after the Iraq-Iran War and Gulf War of 1991, over 20 percent of young Iraqi women had lost their husbands. This group of Iraqi women became the most vulnerable under sanctions, as they no longer received the benefits that had previously been given by the state. Single women breadwinners were the worst affected under sanctions. Not only had they lost the formal support provided by the state, but the economic crisis had also shrunk the degree of support previously provided by the extended family’ (Al-Jawaheri 2008: 104-105). Recently, in the context of the post-2003 US invasion and administration of Iraq, Oxfam’s 2007 report Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq ‘found that one-third of the Iraqi population was in need of humanitarian assistance and that essential services were in ruins’. Humanitarian assistance refers in the first instance to emergency food aid to prevent malnutrition and starvation. Oxfam’s 2009 follow up survey report, In Her Own Words: Iraqi women talk about their greatest concerns and challenges, cited widows as a key group in severe poverty: ‘the largest group of women interviewed who are deemed especially vulnerable, consists of those widowed by conflict who are now acting as the head of her household, and who have been driven deep into poverty’ (Oxfam International 2009: 2). The survey found that ‘76 percent of widows interviewed had not received a pension from the government. Thirty-two percent of those said the registration process was too complicated; 18 percent said they were unaware they had a right to receive a widow’s pension; 14 percent said they were ‘not allowed’ to register and 9 percent said it was ‘unsafe’ (ibid.: 7).

Perversely, attitudes toward women have also become more severe under sanctions, aggravating an already deteriorating situation, through concern over single women and ‘public morals’ (Al-Jawaheri 2008: 106).

The cumulative effect of war and sanctions was significant, as Iraqi society had depended for some time on a generous welfare state. On the eve of war with Iran in 1979, the Middle East Economic Digest provided a summary of the most valuable benefits on offer: the price of staple goods was subsidised; minimum wages were set above inflation; labour law provided job security; an active labour market policy by the state ensured work for all university graduates; education and healthcare were free (ibid.: 9).

In northern Iraq, Kurdish women widowed during the post-1992 Kuwait war found themselves, together with the rest of their community, isolated and physically cut off by the Ba’athist regime’s military forces. As a result of the onset of mass malnutrition, the Kurdish community became a ward of the United Nations under Resolution (SCR) 986.

While it is recognised that the period from 1980 to the present has ‘created many war widows’, war widows, together with other widows and single women, and women with incapacitated husbands, comprise an estimated female-headed household figure of six percent in the Kurdish area of Iraq. Given that war societies typically face higher percentages of widows (above six percent), this suggests that some widows have remarried or been incorporated into male-headed households (Waite 2000: 154).

There are two further aggravating factors for widows in providing for their families in urban Iraq. First, regular activity such as walking down the street has become high risk not only because of sectarian gun battles and IEDs but because of death squads who target women considered to be acting contrary to Islam. The Oxfam survey cited above found that of all women interviewed, ‘55 percent of respondents had been subjected to violence since 2003’ (Oxfam International 2009: 5). Second, widows who cannot prove the deaths of their husbands are denied government income support designed for widows. This has also been documented as a problem in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir, where they are referred to as ‘half widows’ (Al-Ali 2007; Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2007; Black 2005: 214).

In 2008, a 38-year-old Iraqi widow recounted:

‘My children and I left my home in Anbar governorate almost two years ago. My husband had been killed right in front of us. I had to protect my children, so we fled the same night with nothing but some money. For me, today, there is no past and no future, only a horrible present. I only wish I had some photos of my husband and my family. I can see it all in my mind but I don’t know for how long I will remember.’ (Enloe 2010: 65)

Prior to Iraq, the 1992-2005 civil war in Algeria saw widows and other women specifically targeted for assassination by Islamic extremists if living on their own or acting in some other way that was deemed contrary to Islam. Targeting widows for assassination was also documented in the Guatemalan civil war (Ait-Hamou 2004: 120; Povey 2003: 173; Womankind 2006: 12; Zur 2001: Introduction).

In Afghanistan, 20 years of war has resulted in a reported two million widows (UNIFEM 2006), or 27.5 percent of females age ten and over, although other sources put the number of widows at approximately one million. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (Tang 2011: 159) provides the following summary of the Afghan widows’ statistics:

‘Without providing specifics, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported in 2003 that Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of widowhood worldwide (IWPR 8 Oct. 2003). In May 2006, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Kabul office estimated the number of widows in Afghanistan to be over one million (15 May 2006). In the month prior to that, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) placed the number of ‘war widows’ in the country at more than two million (11 Apr. 2006), with between 30,000 to 50,000 widows residing in the capital, Kabul (UN n.d., 1). Most women are widowed as a result of the more than two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, during which many men were killed or went missing (ibid.; IOM 15 May 2006, 1; IWPR 8 Oct. 2003). Low life expectancy and early marriage in Afghanistan result in women often being widowed in their twenties and thirties (ibid.; UN 15 Feb. 2006, para. 28).’

The cumulative effect of the conflict is demonstrated by the story of a widow who lost a son at the start of the Soviet invasion, then lost her second son and husband after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and finally, during the Taliban period, her last son was killed. Originally a carpet weaver, she now keeps a set of chickens to sell eggs as her only means of survival, which she uses to support her widowed daughter-in-law and three granddaughters. There are no male relatives (BBC 2006).

The effects of continuous conflict, lack of a social safety net and highly discriminatory cultural practices that severely limit women’s livelihood options, have been so serious that 65 percent of widows in Kabul interviewed for a 2006 UNIFEM survey said they consider suicide a real option (Sadid 2006). The situation is succinctly summarised in this account, which highlights both the material and the socially marginalising impact on war widows:

‘According to my interviewees there are approximately 35,000 women-headed households in Afghanistan, mainly because so many men were killed during the war years and under Taliban rule (1996-2001). These women are called zanane bee sarparast (unprotected women), itself a derogatory term. In the post-Taliban era, they have been cast out by both family and community. They constitute the poorest of the poor and intra-familial violence against them has increased. Many women believe there is a real danger of a large number of women being socially excluded because they are beggars, sex workers, or household heads… indeed, Kabul’s streets [are] full of beggars, especially women and children.’ (Povey 2003: 173-174)

Afghan women who have no able-bodied husband or male relatives, or children who can work for cash income, are often forced into begging and prostitution because of the extreme hostility towards allowing women to work. The conditions are so severe that some widows have resorted to selling some children so they can feed the others.

One researcher observes similarly:

‘Three decades of war and conflict have left about one million widows to support broken families in a deeply impoverished and divided country, where it is still frowned upon for women to leave home or take jobs, so that sex work too frequently becomes the only possible source of income. Afghanistan has reeled into ever increasing violence as the insurgency has flared in recent years, so the number of widows continues to rise.’ (Joya 2009: 230)

In Rwanda, post-genocide, the economic and childcare burdens on surviving widows have been high:

‘A middle-aged widow lost her husband and her four youngest children in the genocide. She now lives in Kigali with her three remaining children and several orphans she has adopted. She loves children. Though caring for these orphans cannot replace the children she lost, she feels less sorrow. While having a salaried job, she is not secure. She fears a younger person with higher educational qualifications may replace her. Losing her job would make her situation much more difficult. With her modest income and help from a relative, she regularly provides meals daily to more than fifteen people in her household.’ (Tang 2011: 159)

It is estimated that in 2001 widows represented 60 percent of female-headed households in Rwanda (Newbury and Baldwin 2001: 32).

In Nepal, following the civil war and in the face of strong popular aversion to widow remarriage, the government proposed a scheme to pay men to marry widows. Opponents point out that it risks abuse by people traffickers and that a one-off payment is not enough to ensure that widows enter marriage with the means to provide for existing children from previous marriages (ibid.: 33).

In Sri Lanka, after 30 years of war between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, an estimated 33,000 war widows in Eastern Province alone are said to be experiencing deprivation: ‘despite the government’s claims that several measures have been taken up to ameliorate their situation, activists maintain the authorities display a clear lack of commitment to help these women…’ (Buncombe 2009). Still more alarming are reports citing ongoing disappearances of men and murder by apparent death squads well after battlefield hostilities have ceased and the civil war has ended (Pathirana 2008).

Iranian war widows who lost husbands during the near decade long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, were given preferential treatment by the government. This resulted in a lack of equity in government policy towards different groups of widows, elevating one into a materially privileged group:

‘…while an ordinary widow received no state assistance, the state fully compensated war widows and their families.’ (Channel 4 2007; Pathirana 2008)

‘…the Iranian programme included pensions, healthcare, education, counselling, vacation [paid holidays], pilgrimage, subsidised housing, low-interest mortgages, interest-free loans for establishing a business, low travel fare and burial benefits… a monthly allowance until they remarried, custody of their children.’ (Afary 2009: 300)

The government also had an active employment placement programme in state organisations. Children of widows were given a range of education subsidies, including a university quota.

‘Historically, Iranian women have experienced a sharp diminution of economic and social authority after their husbands’ deaths… In most cases her son becomes the main provider for the widow. The war subsidies changed this situation for the widows…’ (ibid., citing Zahedi 2006: 274).

In addition to material benefits of being a war widow, there was however official state pressure on war widows with respect to their private lives, the state demanding that they remarry:

‘During and after the war, the state pressured young war widows to remarry. Ranking clerics, and later President Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), advocated temporary marriage as a solution to the economic burdens of the war and the moral dilemma of having many young widows around [i.e. single women in their sexual prime]. There were about 56,000 war widows, and many were asked to engage in temporary marriages with ideologically committed Islamists or disabled veterans. The state also used the issue of the war widows to promote polygamy for all women.’ (ibid.: 303)

To establish a guiding framework for understanding material outcomes for widows, it is crucial to investigate discrimination, stigma, domestic violence and sexual abuse in conjunction with purely economic factors, to explain how widows can face a choice between severe poverty or making deeply compromising decisions to ensure their long term material well-being.

It is difficult to quantify the incidence of any of these on their own or even in combination, but they are often interlocking themes. It is not unusual in a society context for widows to be despised and deliberately ostracised, while simultaneously being targeted by men for extra-marital sexual gratification.

Stigma and religion

The popular archetypal image of extreme social conservatism towards widows is typified in the elite segment of Indian society, the Hindu Brahmin religious caste, where remarriage is often not permitted, past acts of sati (the now-banned practice whereby widows were expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) may still be revered, and ritualised norms severely restrict daily dress and behaviour for the remainder of women’s lives as widows. ‘Inauspiciousness’ is often seen as a defining characteristic of widows, with negative consequences on people’s futures if they interact with a widow when performing a key life-cycle event such as marriage. While high caste Hindu social norms with regard to widows still apply today (with variations according to social context, such as in rural and urban locations), for wider Indian Hindu society – characterised as non-elite – widows’ social alternatives are more varied, if only out of material necessity. In lower Hindu social groups, widows’ remarriage is more common.

In Hindu Nepal, a documentary film showed that widows face discrimination because of a belief that their husbands died as punishment for immoral acts or crimes committed by the widows in a past life. The younger the age of the husband at death, the greater the severity of the crime committed by the widow. This is significant: 67 percent of Nepalese widows are under age 35 (Widows for Peace Through Democracy 2009: 1). Retribution is further aggravated by hostility of the dead husband’s family, who feel the immoral woman has forced them to pay a high price for crimes they did not commit. This belief is mirrored in a study of widows in southern India (Channel 4 2009; Bhai 1999: 148): ‘widowhood was considered ‘fate’ by at least 58.4 percent of the working widows and 28.7 percent of the non- working widows [in interviews]. Many of them believed it was the curse of a previous birth [life] and some felt it was a consequence of not satisfying the deity [God]’.

The complexity of convoluted social and religious attitudes means that even as the widow is mistrusted, she can simultaneously be revered, as demonstrated in the case of Roop Kanwar, an educated young woman who is said to have committed ritual suicide by fire – sati – on her husband’s funeral pyre in 1987 in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, northern India. Her case became notorious because it had been thought that sati was no longer practised. The women activists who protested against the circumstances of her death were however condemned by a counter protest that accused them of having been ‘corrupted by western values, [and that] their devaluation of the incident of sati, the supreme glory of Hindu womanhood, had to be stopped.’ Roop has not been the only recent case, as evidenced in research published in 1996.

An estimate of widows experiencing physical abuse can only be attempted by reference to the statistics for all women prepared by UNIFEM: ‘globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime’.

Applying this to the global total of 245 million widows produces a figure of 81 million abused widows. While almost certainly understated given that widows are open to higher levels of abuse than other women, this still gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem internationally. In terms of likely regional distribution, Kate Young of NGO Widows Rights International states that ‘research in different cultural contexts clearly shows that the mistreatment of widows is most acute in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa’ (Young 2006: 201). Studies on widows in India and Bangladesh have shown mortality rates of older widows on average 50 percent higher than those for still married women of the same age range. In the case of India, a study on widows ages 45 and over showed that they had a mortality rate 82 percent higher than that of still married women of the same age (Rahman, Foster and Menken 1992; Bhat 1998).

Stigma and sex

In some parts of the world, widowhood suffers from an ambiguous and convoluted social reasoning that links widows with the prejudice about single women that regards them as sexually ‘loose’, i.e. promiscuous at best and prostitutes at worst. Local expressions and views about widows have taken on the same deeprooted prejudice, which is often extended also to unmarried school age girls in the 12-17 age range. It is well documented that some terms for widow are synonymous with prostitute, as for example in Hindi, the most widely spoken of the regional languages of India (Chen 2000: 333). Women consequently often prefer not to use the term ‘widow’ at all.

This stigma means widows can lose out on jobs, with employers fearing the potential inference that they would be employed because of their perceived sexual availability. It may also mean they cannot obtain credit or other necessities, since travel outside the village community – seen as sexually questionable – has not been permitted and they are therefore unacquainted with their regional geography. Martha Chen, a specialist on Indian widows, observed that ‘whether or not widows who work as domestic servants or wage labourers or factory workers also engage in or are coerced into prostitution, they are perennially suspected and accused of sexual misconduct’ (ibid.: 332-333).

A poor widow from Kithoor village in the Indian state of Rajasthan reported: ‘If a woman travels out of the village too often on her own, they say she roams around, that she is a loose woman’ (Agarwal 1989: 86).
This perception of sexual promiscuity can mean that basic protection within the home and community, including protection from rape, becomes impossible, as this case study illustrates:

‘Kodiben had three children when her husband died. Soon afterwards her married brother-in-law, living with her in the joint family, tried to rape her. His wife knew of the incident and was jealous. The second time he caught Kodiben when she was collecting firewood and she was badly hurt. Bravely she appealed to the panchayat (village council) for justice and protection. Its members decided that she should live separately but that her widowed father-in-law should live with her to protect her. The jointly owned land was divided and she, her children and the old man began to live in another house. At first everything was all right, but then the father-in-law began to harass her sexually. Desperate, she appealed again to the panchayat but its members refused to believe her this time. They accepted the father-in-law’s version and condemned Kodiben for her loose ways. Kodiben was distraught with shame and felt she could no longer hold her head up in the village. She drowned herself in the pond the next night.’ (Recounted by Owen 1996: 19)

Other widows may find they are unable to defend themselves against sexual advances or to take such uncompromising action. Greg Mortenson’s account of his time in rural northern Pakistan makes reference to a local man who regularly visited a widow for sex (Mortensen and Relin 2008).

In Iran, men also see widows as sexually available. ‘I must take care every moment. Men, when they see a widow woman, they view her as an easy and helpless prey’ comments one Iranian widow (Afshar 1989: 50).

Stigma and rape during war

Debilitating outcomes for widows are made more likely by their unprotected status. Rape is one of the most common and most serious events they may face. Human Rights Watch remarked, ‘Worldwide, victims of rape are stigmatised and made to feel shame for the crime that has been committed against them. As a result, rape is one of the most under-reported crimes. One [Rwandan] rape survivor said ‘after rape, you don’t have value in the community’’(Human Rights Watch 1996: 23, 25).

While the civilian context of rape is less easy to predict and quantify, war in most parts of the world still guarantees frequent rape – and not uncommonly, mass rape.

Rape is only the starting point of the ordeal. In many societies, confused thinking on women’s issues results in condemnation of the rape victim. In many rural societies, where personal and family status have major economic implications, no aspect is more important for women than sexual purity, or more precisely, the local community perception of their sexual purity. This extends to both promiscuity and sexual abuse (an involuntary sexual act committed against them). Women rely on their sexual purity in order to secure their long-term material well-being through marriage. Rape, then, is a near guarantee of destitution.

In the context of HIV/AIDS, rape in many countries also amounts to a death sentence, and combined with war, is certain to result in major demographic upheaval. Human Rights Watch reported after the Rwandan genocide with its use of mass rape:

‘The profound discrimination against women has carried over into a post-genocide Rwanda and poses serious problems for women, particularly given that they now constitute roughly 70 percent of the population. Many survivors are widows who lost their families in the genocide and found themselves displaced or refugees with no remaining male relatives, as a result many female genocide survivors have been reduced to an even lower standard of living now that they are widowed or orphaned. Most have little education, lack marketable skills, and are often denied access to their husband’s or father’s property because they are women. In addition, rates of maternal mortality as well as malnutrition have reportedly risen since the genocide.’ (ibid.)

The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR), is said to have achieved recognition of rape ‘as a war crime for the first time’ (Merry 2009: 174. See also Pankhurst 2003: 32, citing Drakulic 1994). In addition, rape and ‘sexual enslavement’ in wartime were classified as ‘crimes against humanity’ as part of the International Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

In highland Guatemala during the 1980’s civil war, ‘widespread use of rape [against the Mayans] during counterinsurgency war was a gendered way in which the military attacked the social fabric of family and community life. Widows in particular are forced to confront multidimensional problems as they struggle to survive: not only the loss of family members, but in some cases the rupture of family ties and outright hostilities within families, in some cases leading to domestic violence…’ (Green 1999: 32).

In conventional war, women have a higher chance of surviving conflict than in the case of genocide. This also means they have a higher chance of being widowed, and therefore displaced as refugees, without the protection of their husbands or communities.

The spread of HIV/AIDS through rape during conflict has serious implications for Sub-Saharan African countries. As one researcher observes, ‘the link between conflict and HIV/AIDS is two-way: the virus is a threat to peace and is spread particularly by war’ (Smith 2003: 84). Once a war or significant civil unrest has begun, large movement of people as refugees sets the scene for the spread of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. The main transmitter risk is through armies, through the use of mass rape by soldiers as a political tactic, through generally increased levels of opportunistic sexual assault, or through women and girls resorting to prostitution as a means of survival (ibid.; Black 2005: 233).

Estimates at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s placed the level of HIV/AIDS infection among soldiers in the South African army at 40 percent, the Angolan at up to 60 percent, and the DR-Congolese and Zimbabwean armies at around 75 percent. In addition, many Sub-Saharan armies are involved in peace-keeping operations in Africa (Smith 2003: 84). As the UNHCR states, ‘in any civilian exodus, women and children normally make up an estimated 75 percent of a refugee population’ (UNHCR 2002: 6). In wartime, women – and by extension, widows – face a severe risk of rape from ill-disciplined soldiers acting on their own, or even from organised mass rape. In either case, they face the threat of being raped more than once. UNHCR reported in 1999 that at Kanembwa camp in Tanzania, 26 percent of the Burundian female refugees between and 12 and 49 had been raped (Izumi 2006: 15 and footnote). Such conditions favour rapid transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and it is clear that widows, as part of refugee groups, face multiple health risks.
Some aspects of the stigmas around rape and HIV infection act to prevent HIV-infected widows from gaining such little specialist assistance as is sometimes available, as an Eritrean widow reveals:

‘I am a member of an association of people living with HIV and AIDS. But I am not an active member, because many of the members are commercial sex workers and I do not want to be associated with them. I thus fail to get the benefits that I could get with the association.’ (ibid.)

Widow cleansing and inheriting

Two of the most detrimental and harmful traditional practices specific to widows are widow cleansing and widow inheriting. Cleansing involves compulsory sexual intercourse with another man after the husband’s death. Based on the available evidence, the practice appears peculiar to Sub-Saharan Africa. Cleansing is clearly a high risk activity in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as with respect to other sexually transmitted diseases. Hepatitis B is a hundred times more infectious than HIV, and an estimated 350 million people are infected.

Cleansing, as forced sexual intercourse on a par with rape, presents a clear legal and moral issue by violating a woman’s ability to maintain her physical and psychological integrity. This case is from Malawi in 2005:

‘In the hours after James Mbewe was laid to rest his 23 year old wife, Fanny, hid in his sister’s hut, hoping that the rest of the in-laws would not find her. But they hunted her down, she said, and insisted that if she refused to exorcise her dead husband’s spirit, she would be blamed every time a villager died. So she forced herself to have sex with James’s cousin…’ (La Franière 2005)

Widow cleansing is required because it is believed to break the supernatural or spiritual bond between the widow and her dead husband’s spirit. Until this is done, the husband’s spirit is believed to cause a range of negative outcomes, such as deaths, for the local community – a kind of supernatural turbulence. The choice for the widow is stark: either be cleansed or be banished from the community. The research for this report has not uncovered references to cleansing outside Sub-Saharan Africa, where also – although found all across the continent – it is not universally practised within countries.

In Zambia, Paulina Bubala’s husband died in 1996 of what appeared to be AIDS-related symptoms. Soon after the funeral, both Ms. Bubala and her husband’s second wife covered themselves in mud for three days. Then they each bathed, stripped naked with their dead husband’s nephew and rubbed their bodies against his. Weeks later, she said, the village headman told them this cleansing ritual would not suffice. Even the stools they sat on would be considered unclean, he warned, unless they had sex with the nephew. ‘We felt humiliated,’ Ms. Bubala said, ‘but there was nothing we could do to resist, because we wanted to be clean in the land of the headman.’ The nephew died last year. Ms. Bubala said the cause was hunger, not AIDS. Her husband’s second wife now suffers symptoms of AIDS and rarely leaves her hut. Ms. Bubala herself discovered she was infected in 2000.

What is perplexing about this story is that in spite of the negative impact of her own ‘cleansing,’ and the fact that she has been working as an HIV/AIDs volunteer awareness raiser, Ms. Bubala still appears to support cleansing (ibid.).

Similarly, in another case from Malawi:

‘Shortly after Emily Owino’s husband died, her in-laws insisted that she be ‘cleansed’ by having sex with a social outcast, a custom in her region, as a condition of staying in her home [because of the need to break her link with her dead husband’s spirit]. They paid a herdsman to have sex with Owino, against her will and without a condom.’ (Human Rights Watch 2002)

As well as cleansing, widows may face being literally inherited by the dead husband’s brother (the second eldest brother among siblings). Widow inheriting is a practice seen across the developing world, especially widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also found in parts of South Asia and the Middle East (Ntozi 1997: 125-144). It involves the brother of the deceased husband marrying the widow (a practice sometimes referred to as levirate); or alternatively, if she is allowed to choose not to remarry the brother, it may be limited to the widow promising not to remarry outside the family in order to keep her children and any inherited property – she often has no ownership entitlement to the husband’s property, only usage rights which constitute her property inheritance.

Most of the available evidence focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa, where, like widow cleansing, it is found across the continent but not universally practiced within countries. The purpose of widow inheritance is to provide a safety net for the widow and her children, and to prevent the widow remarrying outside this dead husband’s family. This is important because the children of the widow are considered to be the direct preservers of the dead husband’s family line and so must be kept within the family. Widow inheritance takes no account of the widow’s. Sometimes it also fails to take account of a widow’s right to retain her own children, as this example from Palestine shows:

‘For widows, …it is social relations rather than access to property that really count. A widow is usually more concerned about being able to keep her children than about realising her property rights in her husband’s estate. When households were still mainly dependent on agriculture for a livelihood, the importance of women’s labour was recognised and children were seen as an asset. If a rural widow had to give up her children it was because her kin wanted her to return home; in particular if she was young, they may have feared for her reputation and wanted her to remarry. Unless she married her husband’s brother, her in-laws would not allow her to keep her children and, legally, she would be obliged to give them up.’ (Moors 1996: 79)

A combination of the traditional practices of cleansing and widow inheritance, HIV/AIDS and the lack of government intervention has produced highly destructive results among the Luo ethnic group in Kenya:

‘In the past, tero [widow inheritance] was a practice of ‘guardianship’ through which the widow and her children were taken care of by her husband’s family, and through which she could continue to have children in the dead husband’s name. Since the widow was ‘taken’ by an agnate of her husband, the practice ensured that her sexual and procreative capacities were contained within her husband’s lineage, while providing security to the widow and her children after the husband’s death.

‘In the 1980s and 1990s, with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in western Kenya, the practice of tero began to change dramatically. First, the problem of what to do about widows has become particularly acute because AIDS has created many young widows, many of them HIV positive. Second, with the high death rate from AIDS in recent years, brothers and kinsmen are reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of AIDS [via widow cleansing by sexual intercourse and widow inheritance] or undertake the responsibility of another household. It is becoming common for an unrelated man to be given money or goats to ‘cleanse’ the widow of her husband’s death. Most strikingly, there has been a shift from being ‘taken’ by an agnate to being taken by a ‘professional inheritor’, a man outside the husband’s lineage and often outside Luo community itself. [These men are ‘professional inheritors’ because they move from village to village, living off providing the cleansing ritual]. Taking a widow has become a job done in exchange for money and material benefits, and tero is often described today as a business. People also complain that today, instead of doing tero in its proper place, the home, widows are increasingly drawing upon both AIDS education discourse and church support to refuse to be inherited at all.

‘There are numerous reports of widows being forced off their husband’s land and their property being taken because they refuse tero or because they are accused of spreading HIV/AIDS. Many of these widows and their children end up trying to eke out a living in town from petty trading, bar work or commercial sex work.

‘Young widows are regarded as a threat to the well-being of the home and its people, either because they are suspected of being HIV positive or because, by refusing tero, they carry widow’s dirt (chola).’ (Alber, Geest and White 2008: 153-155)

Nancy Luke records that, even as brothers avoid performing cleansing for fear of HIV/AIDS, they still insist that widows are cleansed by someone to fulfil cultural norms and to avoid the supernatural retribution (chira) that comes with breaking traditional practices, hence the professional inheritors (Luke 2002: 9). Regardless of who does the cleansing, the widow, is passed on to a male relative without regard to her views.

Sexual cleansing is considered important because an evil spirit is believed to have caused the death of the husband; the cleansing ritual removes the evil spirit, and until it is completed, the spirit still surrounds the widow. If the widow passes by as someone dies or falls ill, it is the work of the evil spirit. Widows are therefore not permitted to go to market and no one should eat at the widow’s home except her own children, who are also not permitted to circulate in the community until cleansing has been performed. Those who violate this norm and are thought to have caused harm to someone as a result can find thermselves in serious physical danger from the community, which believes the widow is acting in full knowledge of what ‘she is capable of’ (Interview with respondent from the Luo community, March 2015).

Cleansing was recognised as a serious problem in a recent Open Society Institute report on HIV/AIDS in Kenya, that makes the link between property rights, widows’ inheritance and the spread of the pandemic. Cleansing was included as one of the key HIV/AIDS transmitters:

‘Widow inheritance and widow cleansing – the practice of forcing a woman to marry a relative of her deceased husband and also sometimes to have sex with a ‘village cleanser’ in order to be accepted back into the community – are both linked to HIV infection in Kenya’ (Kalla and Cohen 2007: 17). Cleansing can even include widows ‘having sex with their husband’s dead body’ (Sweetman 2006: 3-4).

In Uganda, Kamya, age 24, provides a male perspective of the unwilling brother required to inherit his older brother’s widow:

‘I was only 22 when Sula, my brother, died. I was waiting for my college exam results. Meanwhile, I worked as a minibus conductor. At the burial ceremony of Sula, we discovered that he had left no will. So the clan elders came to me after their meeting. They told me I was going to ‘take on’ Namutebi – Sula’s widow – and also her three children. ‘Ah, me?’ I asked them. ‘I am only a college student. How can I take on the widow?’ ‘It is because you are the oldest brother of the dead man. It is your duty to take care of the widows and orphans. The children are your blood,’ the old men said. I was shocked. I was angry. Sula was a rich man when he lived. He had his coffee plantation. He never shared his wealth with me. And then I felt fear, because everyone knew that Sula had loved many women. He must have died of AIDS. So his widow had HIV. All these thoughts ran through my mind that day, but I could not challenge the clan elders. I went through with the inheritance rites. But since then, I have never gone back to see Namutebi and her children. It is now almost two years.’ (Jones 2006, citing Ntozi 1997: 125-144)

Some attempts have been made at banning and/or modifying the practice of cleansing:

‘In Malawi, after unsuccessfully attempting to ban widow cleansing, health officials convinced traditional leaders to encourage the use of condoms for those who are involved in the rituals. Some local tribal leaders have welcomed the initiative, modifying customary law to punish cleansers who force women to have sex without condoms (Ligomeka 2003). In 2005, the government of Zambia amended the penal code to make it illegal for any person to engage in a harmful cultural practice such as widow cleansing, or to encourage another person to engage in the practice. This national level law reform supports ongoing changes to policies and practices at the local levels. The AIDS Care and Prevention Department at Chikankata Hospital began promoting alternative ritualistic methods of sexual cleansing though a process of consultation with local chiefs. These consultations explored alternative to ritualistic cleansing, such as nonsexual practices or protected (using condoms) sexual practices. Subsequently, the chiefs in the Chikankata Hospital area enacted a law to abolish ritual cleansing by sexual intercourse in the early 1990s.’ (Gamharter et al., 2007)

‘Husband killing’ and the stigma of witchcraft

Accusations of witchcraft levelled against widows typically take on two forms.

First, widows of any age whose husbands have died in what appear to the community unexplained circumstances (while typically, the cause is an unidentified or unknown disease), are accused of killing them by witchcraft. An example from western Kenya is HIV, when it was still poorly understood during the 1980s, 1990s, and part of the 2000s – i.e. the community did not know it was HIV or what HIV was across the entire rural population. Some women whose husbands died during that period still live under the stigma of witchcraft, with community members focusing on murder rather than HIV as the cause. HIV continues, in 2015, to be poorly understood by some community members in western Kenya, with denials of HIV causing the death of family members.

Second, ‘women who are violating norms of female behaviour by living on their own – often in widowhood – face accusations of witchcraft in many parts of the world’ (Pickup, Williams and Sweetman 2001: 93). This typically happens to elderly widows. Even without violating social norms, they are often effectively suspected of murder immediately after the husband’s death, with the burden of proving otherwise resting on the widow. The claims are always baseless, and not supported by actual evidence. Suspicion of this kind is common, as reported for Nigeria: ‘…in cases where there are no children, the family [of the deceased husband] will often suspect the widow had been involved in the husband’s death’ (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2000).

Having children is no insurance however, as this example from southern Nigeria shows:

‘Beatrice’s husband died intestate in 1991, six years after their marriage. Immediately after his burial, Beatrice’s in-laws summoned her to a family meeting and accused her of killing her husband. They forcibly took away her two small children, ordered Beatrice, five months pregnant at the time, to move out of her matrimonial home without her belongings, and told her that she could return after having the baby to swear an oath that she did not kill her husband.’ (Ewelukwa 2002: 426)

This stigmatisation of widows through the alleged use of witchcraft, with claims of deliberately causing the deaths of their husband and other individuals, is well documented. Sometimes they are even held responsible for droughts and outbreaks of disease, but the accusation can also be motivated simply by the desire to acquire widows’ property, or to exact revenge for an alleged transgression. The witchcraft stigma is found in such geographically disparate locations such as Papua New Guinea, India and Sub-Saharan Africa. It typically exists where the reach of formal law and police presence are limited or non-existent.

The problem is so pervasive in Papua New Guinea that a government official was quoted as saying, ‘witch killing is out of control’ (Channel 4 2009). The Melanesian Institute on the island researches the killings.

It is clear that witchcraft accusations represent a concrete threat to the life and health of a broad spectrum of widows.

Older women are at increased risk of the accusation. In participatory research undertaken by Help Age International in Tanzania, older widows living alone raised accusation of witchcraft as a key concern:

‘The solitude of a widow brings additional problems – if she is not seen much about the village, an air of mystery may grow up around her, which contributes strongly to accusations of being a witch. They are often seen as cleverer than older men and often have physical signs of being a witch [perceived by the community] – red eyes, wrinkles, bags under the eyes, twisted limbs, gnarled hands.’ (Hari 2009)

Depending on the locality, there can be a serious level of threat: organised vigilante groups specialise in the interrogation, torture and execution of the accused. A Papua New Guinean woman accused of witchcraft was spared execution by offering assistance to the vigilantes – as a witch, it was said she could identify other witches (Channel 4 2009).

Such allegations are often clearly caused by straightforward ignorance, for example, of how disease is spread. An adult working age male from a village in Tanzania was recently recorded as declaring: ‘The witches must be killed. My son got diarrhea and died. It was the witches. Of course they deny it…’

Another man stated: ‘witches use the power of our ancestors to harm others. It happened to my grandfather. One day he got pricked by a thorn, and he died the next day. How can a thorn prick kill somebody? He must have angered a witch. It was the same with my father. He was a mentally well man. But then he was bewitched and we haven’t seen him since.’

This is a particular problem for older widows and regularly leads to their murder. One investigation in Tanzania reported: ‘Witch killings are a daily event in Sukumaland. The victims are almost invariably old ones, living alone.’

A Tanzanian activist states:

‘Witch-hunting is the most extreme end of the extreme views towards women held by many men here. Women do the vast majority of the work. We are seen as the property of our husbands. Women are not allowed to decide anything about their lives. We have no rights, no property, and no say. Widows are the exception – and that is why they are targeted. Any bad thing is blamed on us, and we can’t answer back. It ends with us being blamed even for disease and death.’ (Hari 2009: 3-4; see also Fasoranti and Aruna 2002: 55)

Help Age International (HAI) Tanzania explains the context:

‘Unlike other crimes, violence against older women is not just tolerated but accepted. The perpetrator of an attack is usually known and the feud is personal. The killing of an older woman had taken place the night before we arrived to meet Bugandando villagers. [HAI] was sure it had been a deliberate act of intimidation intended to crush the momentum of activists like him. Many older women are vulnerable targets with which to attribute blame for unforeseen problems. They are also regarded with suspicion for having outlived many of their own children – the so-called ghost generation of HIV and AIDS. UNICEF estimates that 14 percent of all children in Tanzania are orphans, of whom 64 percent are cared for by grandparents. The reasons for these killings are complex. Tanzania and Mozambique remain two of the poorest countries in the world with over 50 percent of the population living below the locally defined poverty line. A belief in witchcraft and the use of traditional healers to vocalise suspicions and vendettas seeps through the lifeblood of East Africa. There is nothing wrong with belief in spirits and a connection to the land; it is no different from other organised worship. The harm is in utilising a respected and ancient belief system to justify irreligious violence and brutality for settling jealousies and fear of the unknown. Witchcraft is a vague and loose term, defying exact definition. All too often an accusation of witchcraft prevents the participants from confronting the true nature of the social problems that face them. Searching for herbs in the scrubland rather than making expensive and exhausting journeys to clinics is seen as a telltale sign of witchcraft, as are red eyes: in reality often the result of older women spending a lifetime stirring maize porridge over smoky fires.’ (Help Age International n.d.)

An FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) field officer states the practice of falsely accusing widows of causing their husbands’ deaths has intensified due to HIV/AIDS:

‘Widows are often held responsible for the deaths of their husbands for allegedly having infected them with HIV/AIDS, or causing their death through witchcraft. Property-grabbing from widows and orphans is not a new phenomenon, it existed prior to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, HIV/AIDS has worsened the situation. Increasing rates of infection and the stigma accompanying the disease only add to the economic vulnerability of widows and orphans.’ (Izumi 2006: 3-4)

Witchcraft accusations are also documented elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in the Indian state of Orissa. There is also a general reference to Dalit women (formerly referred to as ‘untouchables’ in India) as witches.

Research by Oxfam Project Officer Puja Roy in the Indian state of Bihar in 1998 casts doubt on ‘the assumption that the persecution of women accused of witchcraft is a problem restricted to tribal people, and that it is caused by illiteracy and superstition.’ The research suggests that ‘violence against ‘witches’ is better explained against a background of female economic subjugation, sexual exploitation, and the persecution of widows and independent vocal women’ (Pickup, Williams and Sweetman 2001: 93).

From 1991-94 in West Singhbhum District in Bihar, 60 women were accused of being witches and tortured to death (ibid.). There have also been documented cases in Bihar of murder after accusations of witchcraft, with the real motive being the desire to unlawfully appropriate land. This is part of a general pattern of violence often employed by relatives to acquire land from widows:

‘Pressure on widows with children to sell their shares [in land] to a relative at a low price, or to lease it out, is usually considerable. Single women (married or widowed) are particularly vulnerable to harassment by male kin who may threaten to kill them if they insist on exercising their claims [to property and land]. Cases of direct violence to prevent women from filing their claims of exercising their customary rights have also been noted, especially in Bihar, beatings being common…’ (Shah 2006: 132-133; Agarwal 1989: 83-84)

The same research study disclosed the case of ‘a widow and her daughter-in-law [who] were forced to parade around the village naked. They were branded as witches because they refused to oblige four prominent men with sexual favours. When they reported this to the police, the villagers responded by burning their house down’ (Pickup, Williams and Sweetman 2001: 93).

The threat and stigma of HIV/AIDS

The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS affects not just those who have the disease, but also their close associates. In Kenya and Uganda, widows of HIV/AIDS husbands speak of HIV/AIDS discrimination being directed not only at them as wives of HIV victims, but at all widows as a group (Nyanzi, Emodu-Walakira and Serwaniko 2007: 3-4).

An online widows-HIV discussion group has been set up for uninfected ‘HIV widows’. Stigma with regard to HIV/AIDS is considered particularly harmful, because it has been shown to cause infected people to avoid treatment, and to avoid frank and open discussion of the disease, leading to denial of risk.

In addition to the HIV/AIDS threat presented by wartime rape, when widows are evicted from their homes by relatives and left with no income and no immediate employment prospects, prostitution is often the only option. The story of Munni, the widow from northern India recounted earlier, is incomplete without emphasising that she is very likely to become infected with HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS emphasises the pivotal role of relatives in their power to safeguard or destroy widows’ lives. Many rural women who enter prostitution have been shown to be unaware of HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted. The results of such economic deprivation and discrimination leading to prostitution, combined with ignorance of the disease, are predictable. A World Bank publication on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Asia observes: ‘in parts of India, the scale and frequency of commercial unprotected sex have been sufficient to ignite epidemics among sex workers, their clients, and a growing number of the clients’ sexual partners’.

Jealousy and other causes

Violence towards widows does not always come from obvious sources, as a widow, living in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh state, northern India, recounts:

‘Life has taught me that women are the enemies of other women. My husband and I were happy at first, but when I couldn’t give him a child he began to beat me. Then he took another wife and we all lived together in the same house. A few months later I found out I was pregnant. This made the other wife very jealous. We carried on like this for two years until my husband fell sick and died. By this time I was pregnant again and had a second baby boy, which only made the other wife even more jealous. One afternoon she crept into the room where I was asleep with the baby and set fire to the bed. The heat and smoke woke me up and I started to scream. The neighbours rushed in but it was too late and my son burned to death. My brothers-in-law beat the woman and threw her out of the house, but she was never arrested or held responsible for what she had done. I suffered fifty-percent burns all over my body and my mother had to sell all her land to pay the hospital fees.’ (Sheikh 2005: 62)

Ebola and widows are linked in a significant way not because more men are dying than women, but because the practice of widow cleansing, widow inheritance, mourning rituals and burial rituals cause widows to become a means of spreading the virus: a disease vector. This section shows how widowhood can act as facilitator of a public health disaster. Widowhood in this context is not an outcome, but a driver of outcomes.

Safe handling of Ebola-infected bodies requires complete protective covering in hazmat biohazard suits to avoid even the tiniest contact with infected body fluids from the ill person. Traditional close-contact rituals militate against these life-saving measures.

In addition to the high risk of death after contact with the husband’s corpse, if the widow is able to avoid infection, she faces not only social isolation like other family members of Ebola victims, but sometimes also claims, as reported in Guinea, that she ‘allowed’ her husband to die.

The aspects of traditional widowhood practices that are most pertinent in contracting and transmitting Ebola include requirements to:

  • drink the water used to wash the husband’s corpse,
  • have the widow’s head shaved, often with non-sterile razors or sharp objects,
  • have sexual intercourse with a relative or other man,
  • marry the husband’s brother.

Ebola represents an extreme health emergency due to its very high infectiousness and mortality rate, up to 90 percent depending on the strain and whether a patient receives professional treatment. The mortality rate among patients at medical facilities was reported at up to 59 percent (World Health Organization 2015). Dr. Gabriel Fitzpatrick, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at a field hospital at the epicentre of the outbreak in Sierra Leone, recounted how a family of nine were all killed by the disease in around five days after the grandmother came down with symptoms (O’Carroll 2014). Treatment is only supportive, which gives a better chance of survival but does not directly attack the virus itself, it only attempts to maintain the body’s processes, such as staying hydrated.

The Ebola outbreak began at the end of 2013 in Guinea. ‘In March 2014, hospital staff alerted Guinea’s Ministry of Health and then MSF. They reported a mysterious disease in the south-eastern regions of Gueckedou, Macenta, Nzerekore, and Kissidougou. It caused fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. It also had a high death rate. Of the first 86 cases, 59 people died. The WHO later confirmed the disease as Ebola’ (BBC 2015).
By 30 March 2014, Liberia reported two Ebola cases, with news also of suspected Ebola cases in Sierra Leone. On 1 April 2014, MSF, highly experienced in tropical medicine, warned that the Ebola epidemic’s spread was ‘unprecedented.’ However the World Health Organization (WHO), behind the curve at that stage, called it ‘relatively small still.’

There had been many Ebola outbreaks since it was first discovered in 1976 in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In every previous case, the outbreaks of Ebola were contained, but in 2014 MSF warned that this outbreak was different. As time passed, it was clear that the 2014 outbreak had grown into country-wide epidemics and an international emergency. The prognosis was not good, not least due to the very slow international response to scaling up what MSF was doing. The outbreak turned into a regional epidemic. The three neighbouring countries at its centre all had poor quality health systems (ibid.), with prevalent traditional beliefs about disease and mourning traditions ideal for Ebola transmission. Widows were directly involved in these mourning practices, which are not the only factor turning the Ebola outbreak into an epidemic and regional humanitarian emergency, but they are an important one.

In Liberia, the scale of the after effects of Ebola is beginning to come to light. A recent article on a Liberian Ebola widow appears typical of conditions on the ground:

‘In the span of a single week at the end of August [2014], Makavi Dulleh [woman widowed by Ebola] lost 19 of her relatives to the Ebola virus. It overtook her family as suddenly as it had engulfed Liberia – as one member was carted away to a hospital, it seemed another would instantly fall sick. Ebola… entered the family through an uncle who was a surgeon at a hospital Voinjama, the capital of Lofa County, where the hemorrhagic fever first crossed into Liberia from Guinea a year ago. Dulleh watched her parents, siblings, and husband all contract the virus, until eventually she herself became ill and was taken to the county’s only Ebola treatment center during the outbreak…

‘After 30 days in the treatment center, Dulleh was discharged from the facility with her healthy baby boy Famoya by her side. It was then that healthcare workers explained to her that only she and her brother had survived – the other relatives who had been taken to the hospital had all died. She is one of many women across the country who lost a husband during the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history…

‘…VICE News heard similar stories from various other Liberian women whose husbands died of Ebola, losing their partner and often the family’s primary, or only breadwinner. The outbreak crippled the country’s economy; as it wanes a year later, it is clear that widowed mothers have been particularly hard hit. Many now have serious difficulty with feeding and supporting their children… the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s women’s protection and empowerment program in Lofa County… told VICE News that [IRC] is learning about more and more widows each day, such that she couldn’t provide an official estimate. The outbreak abruptly threw many women into the position of having to provide for their children.

‘[An IRC staff member explained]: Women in Liberia and Lofa, most of them are dependent on their husbands or other men to be able to make a living, …noting that education rates for women in Lofa are especially low.’ (Ruble 2015)

This report suggests that Ebola widows and their children will face extreme deprivation if humanitarian aid in the form of food and livelihood training is not provided. The VICE News article went on to show that Ebola widows are often taking care of several orphans from other families wiped out by Ebola. Humanitarian emergency needs other than for the immediate medical care of Ebola patients and Ebola awareness prevention will persist for the foreseeable future.

On 17 June 2014, Liberia reported that Ebola had reached the capital, Monrovia. By 23 June, because of the slow international response, MSF stated that the epidemic was ‘out of control’ and made a public request for large-scale, multi-agency assistance. Medical staff and money were needed to contain the outbreak. The countries affected faced mounting losses among thir limited numbers of medical personnel and equipment was not widely available. The outbreak had become more like a war, with medical staff as ‘soldiers’, dying on the frontline against a relentless enemy and in urgent need of reinforcements.

Isolated locations were more severely affected because of limited facilities, distance, poor transport links and widespread popular ignorance about basic health knowledge. Most communities had not experienced Ebola before. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) reported on the loss of health workers in the isolated far north of Liberia, at Foya near the Sierra Leone and Guinea borders:

‘When my husband tested positive for the Ebola virus, my children and I were isolated by our community and our neighbours. We were denied access to contact and assistance from our own family and social workers. My children were prohibited from attending school and I found it difficult to support my family during those trying days,’ says Musu Dolo (name changed).

‘Her husband later died from the highly contagious disease. He was one of the healthcare workers at a hospital which received an Ebola patient from Guinea. He was also the breadwinner for his family of four sons and a daughter. When her husband’s case was confirmed, the entire family was put under surveillance at home for 21 days, the incubation period for Ebola. During this time, the community knew very little about the disease as it was the first time it had surfaced in Liberia. There were a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about the outbreak.’ (Bestman 2014)

Eight months into the emergency, just after mid-August,  MSF Operations Director Brice de la Vigne (O’Carroll 2014) stated: ‘Globally, the response of the international community is almost zero. Leaders in the west are talking about their own safety and doing things like closing airlines – and not helping anyone else’.

At the end of August, de le Vigne stated: ‘It is simply unacceptable that, five months after the declaration of this Ebola outbreak, serious discussions are only starting now about international leadership and coordination.’ (USA Today 2014).

The official figures for the death toll and total cases are reported below, but anecdotal evidence suggests these may be seriously understated: ‘The World Health Organisation (WHO) admits the figures are underestimates, given the difficulty collecting the data. WHO officials this week discovered scores of bodies in a remote diamond-mining area of Sierra Leone, raising fears that the scale of the Ebola outbreak may have been underreported.’ BBC, 10 February 2015.

In November 2014, the BBC reported serious concerns about the accuracy of the statistics: ‘The data remains extremely poor. This is particularly pertinent in Liberia, where new cases are supposedly falling, as only 38 percent of the reported cases are actually laboratory confirmed, compared with 85 percent in Guinea. There is also the overhanging spectre of vast numbers of unreported cases – the best guess is there are around twice as many cases out there as have been reported’ (BBC 2015).

Table 5.4 suggests that at 17 February 2015, there were around 50,000 cases of infection.  A rough estimate of the number of widows involved, at 10-15 percent of all patients, suggests 5,000 to 7,500 (Loomba Foundation estimate).

By early November 2014 there were indications that the epidemic was levelling, with new cases holding steady at 1,000 per week. The three West African countries that had seen cases from travellers – Mali, Nigeria and Senegal – were free of Ebola by the end of 2014.

Picking up Musu Dolo’s story, we can trace the course of the social and agency responses to the epidemic:

‘Because the family had direct contact with an infected person, they were on a priority list for a visit from a psychosocial support counsellor with the Liberia National Red Cross Society. During the first visit, the Red Cross team provided the family with a survival kit which included food and non-food items, as well as psychological first aid to help them cope with being ostracized from the community.

‘It was indeed a very difficult period for Musu Dolo and her children who were mourning the loss of their husband and father, and facing the future with uncertainty. She told us that sometimes people at the shops refused to accept her money for fear of contracting Ebola,’ explains one of the trained Red Cross volunteers.

The National Society has deployed 345 trained volunteers to communities at risk of Ebola, providing them with factual information about the disease and how they can protect themselves. Volunteers also focus on enhancing community knowledge in prevention and hygiene promotion in order to contribute to stopping the social stigmatization of people like Musu Dolo who are directly affected by Ebola.

After several visits by the Red Cross psychosocial support team, the family was gradually becoming open to more interactive sessions. ‘My sleeping has improved and I am now thinking of how to organize a fitting memorial service for my late husband,’ says Musu Dolo. Since then, she has been reintegrated into the community and – with community support – was able to hold that memorial service which was also attended by Red Cross volunteers.

Musu Dolo’s experience is one of many cases in an environment where cases of denial and the challenges of traditional beliefs and customs continue to impede the fight against the epidemic. Government authorities have solicited more support from the Liberia National Red Cross Society to scale up awareness across the country.’ (Bestman 2014).