Why International Widows Day Matters

June 23 is International Widows Day

Posted Jun 21, 2016

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

A Widow & Her Child in Kenya, photo by Kristin Meekhof
Source: A Widow & Her Child in Kenya, photo by Kristin Meekhof

“The day a woman is married, all happiness falls away from her life”- Nepalese adage

Widow. What does this word mean to you? When you hear the word widow, what image comes to mind? Perhaps, you are thinking about a famous widow or even someone near and dear to you. However, for millions of women across the globe, becoming a widow marks the beginning of a life of unspeakable suffering and tragedy. For these women and their children, widowhood is not simply a change in marital status, but the end to economic, social, political, physical, and emotional security.

The event of widowhood for many widows means an immediate loss of all household income.  As a result, the widow is evicted from her marital home and rendered homeless.  She is ostracized and blamed for her husbands’ death, even if the circumstances of his death were well known.  Cultural norms impose extreme restrictions on the widow’s mobility, dress, and diet.  She loses her rightful place and voice within her society.  Importantly, the widow is unable to inherit her rightful estate, especially as it is pertains to land, which in and of itself is a critical human rights violation. Obscenely, in parts of the world, the widow actually is considered property of her husband’s estate and she ‘inherited’ as chattel through forced marriage to her husband’s next of kin.

The unspeakable horror that a widow finds herself in is inhumane. In many parts of the world, a widow is subjected to harmful traditional mourning practices such as being forced to wash her husband’s body and drink the water from his bath. In other cultures, a widow is forced to have sex with strangers or her husband’s relatives, in order to purge herself from the sin of her husband’s death.  In order to survive, it is not uncommon for a widow or her children to be forced into the vicious underworld of sex trafficking.

In the instances of widows as refugees, migrants or internally or internationally displaced by acts of terror, war or natural disaster, the widow’s most basic human right, her very own nationality is revoked or unrecognized. She is unable to transfer nationality to her children. Without this identity, the widow is unable to access her rights under state or host country law is virtually impaired.

 Lord Loomba with Yoko Ono
Source: Used with permission from The Loomba Foundation: Lord Loomba with Yoko Ono

  The World Widows Report written by the Loomba Foundation states that in 2015, there were approximately 258 million widows through the world. The findings of these report were presented by Lord Raj Loomba at the 2016 United Nations Conference on the Status of Women.  Lord Loomba is responsible for the UN adopting June 23 as International Widows Day.

Both writers of this piece, Heather Ibrahim- Leathers, co-founder and president of Global Fund for Widows and author Kristin Meekhof were present for not only Lord Loomba’s presentation, but for other key briefings. The UN briefings addressed the seventeen sustainable developmental goals adopted by most world powers at the United Nations in 2015, with the objective of empowering women and girls. Some of these goals include: good health and well-being, the elimination of poverty, quality education, sustainable cities and communities, and most importantly the achievement of gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.

Due to the extreme poverty (i.e, living on less than a dollar a day), most widows are unable to afford to send their children to school. For example, in 2014, Meekhof met with widows who live in a slum called Kibera. More than a handful of the widows shared that they were unable to afford to buy the required uniforms to send their children to school. Other widows said they needed their children to work instead of spending time in the classroom.

A widow who is part of the Amal project; photo used with permisssion by Global Fund For Widows
Source: A widow who is part of the Amal project; photo used with permisssion by Global Fund For Widows

Ibrahim- Leathers’ non- profit organization understands the tragic economic and social poverty that envelopes widows. She created the Amal Project , which literally means ‘Hope Project’ to financially empower widows in Egypt. The widows receive vocational and financial literacy training before qualifying for a micro-loan to launch a small enterprise of their choice.  The project also equips widows with the training in how to borrow and lend to each other enabling them to begin their own social lending funds. Each widow enters into a social contract with the Global Fund for Widows promising to use the profits of their own businesses to extend the virtuous cycle to another widow in her community.

To date, the Amal project reached 6,400 widows and the Global Fund for Widows found that several of the UN’s Sustainable Developmental Goals were achieved. For example 78 percent of the widows achieved an increase in their household income, and the average increase was 48 percent. Also, 75 percent of the widows were able to establish some type of savings and as the widow’s income increased, her exposure to domestic violence decreased.

Meekhof says she will never forget one particular widow that she met in Kibera. This widow was under age 35 with four children. She lived in a one room mud slab that she rented, and didn’t have access to clean running water or even a bicycle.   This widow shared that she had to walk quite a distance to a NGO several times a month to get medication for her HIV positive status, a health condition she contracted from her late husband. She also shared that she was waiting to have her infant daughter reach a certain age so that she too could be tested for HIV. “I shall never forget when she told me that she wasn’t able to attend her husband’s funeral,” recalls Meekhof.

It is not uncommon for widows to be banned from their husband’s funerals as they are deemed bad luck and / or the cause of their spouse’s death even though factually this is not true.  What is not disputable is that economically empowering widows is the solution to sustainable development. It is also the key to reducing violence and ensuring that widows’ human rights are not denied.

Widows’ rights are women’s rights are human rights.

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers is the co- author for this piece.

Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers founded Global Fund for Widows following the passing of her grandmother in 2009. Prior to a career in philanthropy, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers enjoyed a 15 year-long career on Wall Street.  Specifically, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers served as a Vice President, in Credit Suisse’s Leveraged Investment Group, where she was directly responsible for over $1 billion in high yield and leveraged loan assets. Prior to Credit Suisse, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers worked at JPMorgan where she was an Emerging Markets Fixed Income analyst responsible for over $4 billion worth of debt issuance. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers is an award-winning research analyst with her seminal works published globally and translated into multiple languages. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers is also a co-author of the parenting guide Toddlers ON Technology, a seminal work on toddlers’ use of digital and mobile technology.  Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers earned her Bachelors in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is a Chartered Financial Analyst.

Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master's level social worker. She is a speaker, writer, author of "A Widow's Guide to Healing." She was a recent panelist at the University of Michigan Hospital, where she spoke about compassionate care. She was also a panelist at the Parliament of World Religions. Kristin is a graduate of Kalamazoo College and completed the M.S.W. program at the University of Michigan. She can be reached via her website. Earlier this year, Kristin and Heather attended the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women.