On 6 July 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate tabled by Lord Loomba (Crossbench):

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the United Nations’ International Widows’ Day and to empower widows to achieve economic independence in the face of continuing discrimination and prejudice affecting their opportunities and life chances as well as those of their dependents.

1. International Widows’ Day

International Widows’ Day takes place on 23 June each year. A resolution to mark this day was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010. The aim of International Widows’ Day is to draw attention to and address the issues faced by widowed women. These include increased risk of poverty and violence and a lack of access to healthcare, as the UN describes:

  • Many widows experience poverty because they do not have access to credit, have no or limited inheritance rights, are dependent on the charity of the deceased’s relatives or are made liable for the debts of their spouse.
  • Widows can be victims of physical and mental violence relating to inheritance disputes and can be coerced into participating in harmful traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites.
  • Lack of access to healthcare can be exacerbated by poor nutrition, inadequate shelter and vulnerability to violence, as well as sexual and reproductive health needs not being addressed.

The UN has argued that armed conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic, and displacement and migration have left many women newly widowed or with partners who are missing.

UN statistics state that there are more than 258 million widows globally.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Development Studies used data from the World Health Organisation’s Survey of Global Ageing and Adult Health to examine deprivation among widows. The study found that widows were deprived in several areas in the countries they studied (Ghana, India, Russia, South Africa and China). However, levels and patterns of deprivation varied significantly. The authors said the findings challenged “generalised claims about widowhood” and called for “more contextualised analysis”.

2. Financial implications of widowhood

Widows in many countries lack legal rights. According to the World Bank’s report ‘Women, business and the law 2023’, 76 of 190 countries studied restrict a woman’s property rights. Currently, 43 economies do not grant equal inheritance rights to male and female surviving spouses.

According to the UN, in many countries being a widow can mean significant financial insecurity:

In many countries, widows do not have equal inheritance rights, and they may be stripped of their land, evicted from their home, or even separated from their children. They may be denied access to inheritance, bank accounts, and credit, which can have significant financial impacts for them, their children, and future generations. It is estimated that nearly one in ten widows worldwide lives in extreme poverty.

Many widows do not have access to a pension, therefore the loss of a spouse’s income can lead to destitution for older women.

3. Cultural practices

In 2018, the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Helpdesk, an agency funded by the then Department for International Development, produced a review of the evidence available on harmful cultural practices affecting widows. It identified a number of such practices, such as widows being forced to marry surviving members of their spouse’s family, being raped and being accused of witchcraft. However, the VAWG Helpdesk noted that, while there was small-scale qualitative research available on these practices, there was limited data on their prevalence.

Some research has highlighted that widows in India face particularly high levels of discrimination and deprivation. A 2000 UN research paper on widows has stated that “India is perhaps the only country where widowhood, in addition to being a personal status, exists as a social institution” and that “widows’ deprivation and stigmatisation are exacerbated by ritual and religious symbolism”.

The 2015 Journal of Development Studies article referenced above found that in India, more than the other countries studied, widowhood was strongly associated with a wide range of deprivations, including relative poverty, poor nutritional status, poor health, poor quality of life, depression and conflict. It argued that associations with poverty and disadvantage could not be explained by lower rates of economic participation by older widows, by solitary living or lower rates of pension coverage, which were low for all women. The authors concluded that it was likely that these deprivations resulted from “more complex processes of intra-household and community discrimination” that were not captured by the data but were “well-documented elsewhere”.

4. Previous House of Lords debates

In 2019 the House of Lords debated a question tabled by Lord Loomba marking International Widows’ Day. Lord Loomba is the founder, chair and a trustee of the Loomba Foundation, which aims to support widows worldwide. Opening the debate, Lord Loomba stated why he believed the day was necessary:

Even while there is greater recognition of inhumane behaviour towards women on the deaths of their husbands, widows still face an uphill struggle for their voices to be heard and for justice and fairness in their lives. Widows endure daily obstacles and are at the forefront of gender discrimination as they face double discrimination. They are liable to have their land and property taken away from them, and they suffer sexual abuse and even rape. Many cultural practices blame widows for the deaths of their husbands, and they face stigma and ostracisation from their communities.

Responding for the government, Baroness Sugg, who was then a minister at the then Department for International Development, said the government was supporting widows through several programmes. These included supporting vulnerable women in Ghana and Bangladesh and a programme for pre-independence Commonwealth veterans and their widows living below the poverty line.

On 26 June 2023 Lord Loomba asked the government what plans it had to respond to International Widows’ Day. He argued that eradicating discrimination against widows was “critical” to achieving the UN sustainable development goals of ending poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, reducing inequalities and creating sustainable communities. He asked if the government would use its expertise and research to help UN member states implement effective programmes to help widows.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, then minister of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), responded that the government’s new international women and girls strategy, covering the period 2023 to 2030, would “support grass-roots, women-led civil society organisations to reach the most marginalised women and girls”. Lord Goldsmith said the FCDO had committed to ensuring that by 2030 80% of its bilateral aid would include a focus on gender equality. He said these resources would be targeted “towards the main life stages of women and girls” and that this would “secure lifelong, intergenerational impact and strengthen political, economic and social systems that played an important role in protecting and empowering women and girls”.

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Cover image from Unsplash.