For many women around the world, the death of a spouse is magnified by many other losses – of their social status, marital home, land, property, social security, dignity, and sometimes their children.
Men, on the other hand, lose none of their human rights after the death of a spouse and usually gain support in starting a new chapter in their lives. Unfortunately, discriminatory and punitive behavior toward widows ostracizes them, forces many of them and their children into poverty, and represents a form of gender-based violence that is unjust and unacceptable.
The United Nations observed June 23 as International Widows’ Day to draw global attention to the voices and experiences of an estimated 258 million widows worldwide, of whom one in 10 lives in extreme poverty, according to a 2018 report by UN Women. Many widows face economic, social, physical and psychological violence by their marital families and communities. This maltreatment is worsened by lack of awareness, resources and access to justice.
As young professionals working in Nigeria and India, we have witnessed the harmful practices widows face, experiences that have shaped our work and led to our understanding of this global human-rights violation. Many widows face eviction from their homes and denial of their inheritance rights to land and other property for which they have worked and on which they depend for their livelihood.
Customary laws and cultural norms tacitly support such economic violence against widows despite statutory law protections. Impoverished widows are often forced into “levirate” marriages – as if they were property to be inherited by a male in-law – and some are forced to fight in court for custody of their children … if they have the knowledge and resources to do so.