Liberating Africa’s Widows
Widows comprise between seven and 16 percent of all adult women, depending on which study you use.
However, this percentage is much higher in countries and regions where HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and poverty are found in greater proportion.
Armed conflict and ethnic cleansing (for example in Rwanda and Congo) have formed many widows.
According to the UN’s Women 2000 Report, it has been estimated that in Rwanda, 70 percent of all children are dependent on widowed mothers.
In developed countries widows are mostly elderly women, but in developing countries widowhood often also affects younger women.
In all countries, widows far outnumber widowers, due to longer life expectancy and the frequent age disparity between partners.
While addressing delegates at the opening of the 1st London International Conference on Widows in 2001, South Africa’s then First Lady Graca Machel said, “My continent Africa has many widows of all ages, in all conditions and degrees of poverty, isolation and in need.
“In my own country Mozambique, the civil war left a legacy of hundreds and thousands of widows and fatherless children.
“The HIV/AIDS pandemic has devastated family life across the continent leaving uncountable numbers of orphans and placing an additional burden on older women, many of them widows, who have to take on the care of sick and dying children and grandchildren in need.
“These brave and resilient women symbolise a situation which cuts across culture, religion and nationality.”
For widows, young and old, throughout Africa, on-going discrimination is the norm.
Human rights violations and harmful societal practices threaten their wellbeing.
They are prone to poverty, abuse and neglect with barely the means to care for themselves or their children.
Widows in Africa remain a disenfranchised group as evidenced by the lack of statistics reporting the needs of this population.
Statistics claim that about 42 million orphans currently reside on the continent of Africa with 12 African countries south of the Sahara accounting for 70 percent of them.
Nigeria, along with Ethiopia and the DRC, has one of the largest orphan populations.
According to UNICEF estimates, Nigeria has over nine million orphans, with nearly 10 percent of them being orphaned by HIV and/or AIDS.
As if losing your husband and your loved one is not causing enough sadness and grief for a woman staying behind, the sad situation does not end here but often becomes worse.
Millions of widows in the world endure extreme poverty, banishment, violence, homelessness, health problems and discrimination.
Furthermore, these women are often blamed for their husband’s death and accused of witchcraft.
In Africa, mainly due to the HIV and AIDS pandemic, there are many widows and they often survive in the worst imaginable conditions.
Sometimes widows are seen as “impure” and people will not even share a cup or a plate with them.
All too often, they are not protected by special laws and as such their human rights are violated.
Many of the world’s widows are so poor that they have no recorded residence and so retain missing and unaccounted for in national census and in house hold democratic survey.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says of the approximately 245 million widows in the world, more than 115 million live in extreme poverty.
It is still necessary to confront the common assumption that widows are elderly.
However the reality is that the majority are young, willing and able to make valuable contributions to the development of their communities and nations.
Unfortunately, women in Africa, like other developing regions, already tend to be less empowered, less educated and subject to more legal and social constraints than men, but the situation of widows – and their children – is far worse, according to the UN.
“Abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today,” says the website for the inaugural International Widows' Day in June 2011.
Widows, through poor nutrition, inadequate shelter, lack of access to healthcare and vulnerability to violence, often suffer not only physical ill health but also stress and chronic depression.
In the context of HIV and AIDS, African widows are particularly vulnerable.
They may not be informed of the cause of death of their partners or might not find out until they become ill as well.
In addition, mourning rites may involve sexual relations with male relatives; they might be forced into a second marriage with an infected “heir” or brother-in-law.
Sadly, for many, sex-work may be the only way of getting money or food.
Often, they do not have money to buy medicines for themselves and their children.
Surely, a world that prides itself on how far it has advanced must not continue to let such a situation continue.
African countries, having experienced the brutality of colonialism and slavery, should be at the forefront fighting against all forms of oppression, victimisation, intimidation, brutalisation and injustice to widows, children and the underprivileged.
They should create mechanisms to protect widows from ill-willed relatives and communities.
In pursuance of this, governments should not only intervene in the affairs that aggravate these untold sufferings and hardship but also ensure that the intervention is prompt and judicious.
To give special recognition to the plight of widows in order to restore their human rights and alleviate poverty through empowerment, the UN declared its first international Widows Day on June 23, 2011.
This was necessary since once widowed, women in many countries often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of widow abuse.
In his speech on the first International Widows Day, UN boss Ban Ki-Moon said, “We must recognise the important contribution of widows, and we must ensure that they enjoy the rights and social protections they deserve.
“Death is inevitable, but we can reduce the suffering that widows endure by raising their status and helping them in their hour of need.
“This will contribute to promoting the full and equal participation of all women in society. And that will bring us closer to ending poverty and promoting peace around the world.”
In an article titled “Empowering widows in Africa” for the African Bulletin, Jacqueline Lampe said, “To improve the situation of widows, awareness should be created about their hidden bad situation in which their basic human rights are neglected. Widows should be given a voice.
“Furthermore they should be helped to become independent by means of education and empowerment. “
Generally speaking widows need support, employment, housing, and protection from violence, access to healthcare and most of all proper representation.