Defining Family: International Widows’ Day

The 26th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council will come to an end this week. The Council discussions included an annual discussion on gender integration, panel discussions on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage, gender stereotypes and women’s human rights and sustainable development. A resolution was also put forward on the Protection of Family, a resolution that was originally put forward back in March at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council. However, it was set aside for the next session as many member states blocked the resolution citing the resolution as controversial and damaging to progress made in the aspect of the rights of both children and women.

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

I would like to take this opportunity of the annual International Widow’s Day to highlight just why this resolution is harmful and has the potential to perpetuate the suffering and injustice faced by widows, young women, girls and boys worldwide. Firstly, the resolution builds on recent resolutions that recognise the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society; this in itself is not a bad thing. However, it does not recognise the diversity of family formations for example a single mother with her children, a widow and her son, gay couple raising their adopted child, etc. This resolution notes that family is a man and woman and their children. Hence, it is the protection of the ‘traditional-social’ definition of family.

2014 is the UN’s International Year of the Family, further highlighting the importance of family. In this regard 2014 should be a year to celebrate family in all its diversity. It is an opportunity to advocate for those who do not fit into the concept of a ‘traditional family’ – for example women who are widows or people who cannot start a family due to discriminatory laws and practices.

Take the case of widows in India, who account for an estimated 40 million and approximately 10% of all the nation’s women. Their suffering and voices must be heard. In many cases these women are ostracised and have no means of making an income; forcing them into poverty. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, a widow is referred to as randi, which means “prostitute” in Punjabi. In this region, they usually arrange for the widow to marry her deceased husband’s brother as the social belief is that being owned by a man is a way to avoid being raped. Sadly, this practice of forced marriage exists in many other parts of the world and in this vein women and girls are treated as property not humans. Also, the deceased husband’s family in the majority of these cases will forcibly take actual property and land from the widow and claim it as theirs. Margaret Ngii, a widow from Kenya and mother of seven describes her traumatic experience;

After his burial, things drastically changed for the worst, my in-laws took all the properties my late husband had bought, nothing was left to me; the culture does not recognise the well-being of a woman.”

This is gender based violence against women and is a direct violation of their human rights. The story does not end here; let’s look at single mothers (like my mum). Outcomes from the International Report on Mapping Family notes that children are more likely to live with one or no parent in the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions. Globally, one-quarter to one-third of all families are headed by single mothers. Who has the right to tell these women that as single mothers they are not families? Take the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of 12 million single parent families in 2013, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Today, 1 in 3 children – a total of 15 million – are being raised without a father and nearly half live below the poverty line.

If we as nations support the UN resolution on the Protection of the Family that is being proposed at the Human Rights Council, we condemn those that do not fit into the rigid box of a ‘traditional family’ to a life of misery and discrimination. But there is another way. We can support and advocate for a more inclusive definition of family and continue to raise awareness on the discrimination faced by widows, single parents and LGTQI community. It is essential that we advocate and work with policy makers and law decision makers to ensure the law protects and promote human rights for all regardless of marital status, background, race, gender or sexual orientation.

This International Widows’ Day, learn more about the plight of widows from Girls’ Globe bloggers:

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

Speak Up for Widows

Image Courtesy of Patrick Andre Perron

Today is International Widows’ Day. Adopted on February 23, 2011, International Widows’ Day serves as a global reminder of the economic, social, and health consequences that arise upon the death of a woman’s spouse. As such, International Widows’ Day creates a space for conversation on widows’ issues and encourages individuals, organizations, and governments alike to advocate for widows’ empowerment.

The Loomba Foundation, the main advocate behind the creation of International Widows’ Day, works to help widows and their children around the world. In 2012, UN Women and The Loomba Foundation launched a three-year project to empower widows through global advocacy and economic empowerment.

“No woman should lose her rights when she loses her husband – but an estimated 115 million widows live in poverty, and 81 million have suffered physical abuse. Girls [that marry] much older men are especially vulnerable. Let us use International Widows’ Day to advocate for the rights of all widows so they can enjoy better lives and realize their great potential to contribute to our world.”
~ Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

In addition to the sexism and discrimination all women endure, widows also suffer from consequences specific to widowhood. From food security to economic stability to community social status, widows around the world suffer from a range of hardships.


  • Some widows are children or teenagers and are forced to live with the associated stigma and discrimination their entire lives.
  • Over 500 million children of widows fall victim to an underworld of forced servitude, disease, homelessness, violence, and a denied education.
  • More than 1.5 million children of widows will die before their fifth birthday.
  • At least 245 million women around the world are widows and more than 115 million widows live in poverty.
  • 81 million widows have been physically, sexually or otherwise abused – almost one-third of all widows in the world today.
  • Some widows are accused of being evil, or a bad omen, or are blamed for the death of their husbands.
  • Some widows are targeted for torture and even murder.
  • Some widows are raped in so called ‘cleansing’ rituals.
  • Some widows are forced into prostitution or remarriage, many are socially excluded and denied their rightful inheritance.
  • Often rejected by their own families, millions of widows have no rights, no voice, no choice.
  • Widows face double discrimination; they are women and they are widows.

“Across the world, widows suffer dreadful discrimination and abuse…it is a human rights catastrophe.” ~ Cherie Blair, President of the Loomba Foundation.


  • GHANA: The only country in the world with legislation that criminalizes acts of cruelty towards widows, including the practice of harmful customs and rituals. However, widows continue to fall victim to ‘cleansing’ rituals.
  • AFGHANISTAN: The war in Afghanistan has resulted in more than 2 million Afghani widows, a country with a population of only 26.2 million.
  • NEPAL: A major Nepalese belief is that, upon the husband’s death, widows become witches with dark powers. As a result, they are often highly discriminated and banned from attending public events. In 2012, a 40-year-old widow was burnt alive after accusations of witchcraft.
  • Countries with the highest number of widows in 2010 include China (43 million), India (42.4 million), The United States (13.6 million), Indonesia (9.4 million), Japan (7.4 million), Russia (7.1 million), Brazil (5.6 million), Germany (5.1 million), and Bangladesh and Vietnam (4.7 million).

For information specifically related to how widowhood impacts food security, read my recent post on Food Tank.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #IntlWidowsDay. To learn more about the plight of widows around the world, please see the following: