Ellen Mlalazi is a widow from rural Zimbabwe. She supports a household of 10, both children and grandchildren, despite the limited economic opportunities in the Binga region that reflect the ongoing crises and prevalent gender inequality. Ellen is just one of millions of widows around the world who struggle to claim their equal human rights after the loss of a husband; an event that can lead to enduring poverty for women and their families.
Although accurate information is limited, it has been estimated that there are some 285 million widows around the world, with over 115 million of them living in deep poverty. Data on women’s status are often not disaggregated by marital status, so at every level of gender statistics, from national to global, widows are not visible. Yet we know that many elderly widows face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, based on their gender, age, rural location or disability. Others are still young when they lose their husbands, perhaps as a result of conflict or because they were married as children to a much older man. These women face a long lifetime of widowhood.
Along with the shock of losing a spouse, the situation for widows is often compounded by stigma and social isolation. In many countries, widows are stripped off their rights to assets such as land, income and property. Without access to social protection, they face destitution.
According to the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law 2016 report, out of 173 countries, 90 per cent have at least one law limiting women’s economic participation, including constraints on their ability to inherit or own land. Repealing these discriminatory laws is not only ethical, it is a mandate of the Sustainable Development Goals. The first target of Goal 5 is to ”end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere” with a further target specifying the need to “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and other natural resources, in accordance with national laws.” Action on these could impact the lives of millions of widows who are currently dependent on their husbands for their livelihoods.
Ellen Mlalazi was able to improve her situation, thanks to a UN Women Fund for Gender Equality project that trained her in financial skills, and included her as a member of a Savings and Lending Group. Through this group, Ellen saved enough money to start two micro-enterprises. With these new ventures—selling slippers and breeding goats—she has established her independence, grown her business and supported her family.
UN Women is committed to working with Member States and civil society on ensuring the human rights of widows. This includes providing women with information on access to a fair share of their inheritance, land and productive resources; pensions and social protection that are not based on marital status alone; decent work and equal pay; and education and training opportunities.
Widows must be empowered to support themselves and their families. This also means addressing social stigmas that create exclusion, and discriminatory or harmful practices, such as those in Togo, where a widow can be required to undergo a period of isolation and imprisonment, purification ceremonies to “cut the link” with her deceased husband, and pressed to remarry.
This year’s UN High-Level Political Forum will take place in July with a focus on “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world”. It provides an important opportunity to highlight and act on the connection between widowhood and poverty, as well as on the paucity of quality, sex-disaggregated data about widows and their lives.
The Sustainable Development Goals call on all of us to include those who are at risk of being left behind. Women have inviolable rights that are not dependent on anyone else; they must be able to enjoy those rights whether they are single, married, separated or widowed. Let us work to ensure that, just like Ellen Mlalazi, all widows have the opportunity to build a new life after personal loss.