Ensure that widows are ‘not left out or left behind’, UN chief urges on International Day

UN Women/Ryan Brown A 38-year-old widow who lost her husband in the Central African Republic war escaped to the Ngam refugee site in the Adamawa region of Cameroon with her five children; one of whom recently died.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


On International Widow’s Day, marked on Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is asking everyone to reflect on the “economic hardship and increased vulnerability” of these bereaved women and ensure “they are not left out or left behind”.

In the “absence of social and legal protection”, he said in his message, “widowed women’s lifetime earnings and savings are often too little to avoid poverty”.

Even in countries with good pension coverage, “women are significantly more likely to suffer poverty in old age than men”, he continued, pointing out that “social services are particularly important for older widows who may live alone or have greater need for elderly care services”.

In many countries, widows do not have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts, “meaning that they may be stripped of land, property and even rights and access to their own children”, according to the UN chief. “Even where laws do not discriminate, those rights need to be equally applied and enjoyed in practice”.

Moreover, in some societies, widows suffer marginalization, ill-treatment and violence, including sexual abuse, harassment and forced remarriage.

Mr. Guterres also shone a light on the vulneraries of widows in conflict and natural disaster, which are exacerbated through loss and displacement and weakened social and legal protections, stressing that “norms that are used to justify” these discriminatory practices must be tackled.

“On this international day, let us reaffirm our commitment to supporting all widows, regardless of age, location, or legal system” ensuring that they are “not left out or left behind”, concluded the Secretary-General.

‘Unseen’ women

For her part, the Executive Director of UN Women observed that while families sustain cultures and economies and provide love, support and nourishment, “all too often”, they can also be “places of violence and discrimination for women and girls, with widows being some of the most affected, with little recourse”.

“When a woman’s value is contingent on having a husband, widowhood can force women out of family structures entirely, leaving them particularly vulnerable to multi-dimensional poverty, loneliness and isolation” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in her message.

Noting that poorer women are more likely to become widowed because of large spousal age gaps in poorer households – often sustained by harmful practices like child marriage – and a lower life expectancy of poor men, she observed that “many widows also struggle to maintain economic security in the face of discriminatory inheritance laws”.

“Even in places where legislation exists to protect women from these situations, widows are often subjected to eviction and property grabbing”, maintained Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Despite being present in every society in significant numbers, widows remain largely unseen, with correspondingly weak support for the challenges they face”.

While 2010 figures show that 14.6 per cent of women aged 55–59 globally were widowed, this does not capture the full picture. Widows can also be child brides whose husbands died, leaving them with little or no inheritance, property or livelihood opportunities.

“The struggle to support themselves and their children in these conditions sets women up for a lifetime of disadvantage and fuels cycles of poverty across generations”, bemoaned the UN Women chief, underscoring that urgent action is needed “to better protect and sustain widows”.

She noted steps that governments could take, including policy efforts toward supporting income security and economic participation for the most vulnerable, such as widows.

“On this International Widows’ Day, we recognize widows in all their diversity, and acknowledge the need to integrate them fully and visibly into our work on gender equality so that we break cycles of poverty and disadvantage and ensure that all widows can enjoy their full human rights”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka concluded.

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