The World Widows Report identifies twelve key issues affecting or arising from the plight of widows, which are present to differing degrees in diverse societies around the world, some universal and some region or country-specific.
1 Property theft and denial of inheritance
Widows are often forcibly evicted from their homes and extended families by the husband’s family after his death, often amounting (where formal or customary laws permit widow inhertance) to theft of land, buildings and even such mundane items as pots, pans and bedding. Widows are left destitute and homeless. This occurs across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Eviction results from lack of inheritance rights in law or lack of enforcement when such rights do exist. Women fear invoking inheritance rights lest it puts them in conflict with the family.
Eviction can occur in cases where the husband’s family repudiates the customary practice of incorporating the widow into the family, or when widows refuse to go through the cleansing ritual. These are both common characteristics of the widow experience in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the Middle East, cases have been reported where the widow suffers a form of property theft by the husband, before his death, instigating the transfer of property to male relatives.
Eviction of widows is widely practised in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and has also been documented in North Africa and parts of East Asia.
2 Superstition and/or cruel beliefs
Due to high levels of superstition in many developing countries, widows are often erroneously accused of having caused the deaths of their husbands and subjected to psychological and physical abuse as well as eviction. Such accusations have been documented across Sub-Saharan Africa and in India and Nepal.
3 Discrimination against women
Working women, regardless of marital status, are still widely forced to accept lower wages than men. This inequality is a global phenomenon, exacerbated by issues such as illiteracy. As women, widows are also often not permitted to take over rural livelihoods due to the highly gendered nature of farm work and agricultural supply chains. This phenomenon has been documented in Latin America, parts of East Africa and parts of East Asia.
4 Denial of right to family
International law requires countries to ‘facilitate the family’. Children however are sometimes forcibly removed from their mother on the death of the father. The eviction described in Section 8.1 is also a form of denying the right to family. Loss of children has been documented in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
5 Child labour
When not removed by the husband’s family, widows’ children from low-income families often have no choice but to enter the labour force as child labourers to support their mothers and siblings. (For definitions of child labour, see International Labour Organization 2006.) Child labour often results in lost education, high risk of harm through hazardous employment, heightened risks associated with child labour such as physical and sexual abuse, and other special child risks such as abduction by professional begging and prostitution gangs. Children of widows working as child labour is ubiquitous across all developing countries.
It can be difficult or impossible for widows to remarry, or or only under unfavourable circumstances, such as when child or very young widows can only marry older men, sometimes with older wives still in the household. Bans on remarrying for cultural reasons with no basis in law have been documented in some Hindu social strata in India and Nepal.
Widows are sometimes dissuaded or prevented from remarrying so as to keep the children in the husband’s family. These practices have been documented in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
Under local traditions, widows can commonly be forced to remarry a brother of the deceased husband. The risks associated with this practice are clear as the custom often takes little or no account of the presence of widespread infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis B and C in the husband, the widow or the brother.
7 Widowhood customs
Widows suffer psychological and physical abuse through the traditional death rituals known as ‘cleansing’ whereby they may be required to drink the water in which the husband’s corpse has been washed and to have sexual intercourse with a brother-in-law or other man to remove evil spirits. This practice has been widely documented across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Exclusion of widows from normal society is common in a variety of forms, including superstitions that widows bring bad luck, requiring them to reflect their status in their appearance through clothing or shaved heads, or considering them unsuitable for remarriage. Extended exclusion often interferes with prospects for paid employment, so adding to poverty and deprivation.
Exclusion has been documented in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and worldwide in Muslim communities. Cultural bans on remarriage have been been documented in some Hindu social strata across India and Nepal.
8 Child marriage
Child marriage exposes girls to many of the risks described including the likelihood of early widowhood. They are not uncommonly taken on for sex by already married older men no longer attracted to older wives and often face retaliation by the children and older wife or wives of the husband. Child marriage has also been used as a cover for obtaining victims for human trafficking.
Child marriage has been documented across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
9 Poverty and neglect
In northern parts of South Asia, widows in their forties and fifties have significantly higher mortality than married women in the same age group; winter deaths due to fuel poverty have been documented among elderly widows in the United Kingdom. The spiral of poverty further undermines widows’ ability to find and maintain employment and increases the risks to their children, so setting in train a cycle of deprivation that can last for generations. This is a feature of widows’ deprivation in all parts of the world.
10 Little or no social welfare protection
In some developed countries, losing a husband presents a substantial risk to health through the loss of the husband’s occupational health insurance and the associated reduction in pensions and other income. In countries lacking social protection, losing a husband’s income often leads to extreme poverty and destitution. Efforts to avoid this through high fertility (i.e. having sufficient surviving children, especially male, to provide care) can increase the risk of maternal morbidity and mortality due to the absence or poor quality of healthcare.
11 Disease and public health
As noted in Sections 8.6 and 8.7, widowhood can act as a driver to spread infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C (350 million people are infected with hepatitis B), syphilis and gonorrhea due to enforced traditional practices of cleansing and widow ‘inheritance’. This issue is most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa.
12 Girl-child deprivation
An often overlooked consequence of widows’ deprivation in developing countries, is the discrimination it encourages against girls within the family when resources are scarce, state welfare is lacking and women are banned or obstructed in accessing paid employment. These conditions cause families to focus resources on male children and adults to ensure family survival, including by mothers with inadequate pension provision. Limited funds are therefore directed to ensure boys receive healthcare when ill and are educated to maximise their income earnings potential. The risks of widowhood are therefore in part responsible for the phenomenon of ‘son preference’ in many societies around the world (Plan International 2009: 56; Croll 2000).