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Widowhood: invisible for how much longer?

Margaret Owen has been trying to get the CSW to address the poverty of widows for 12 years. This is her last attempt. She describes going from despair to growling with anger to hope - all in a day

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Fifteen years ago I hopped on the plane to Beijing, heady with excitement, huge optimism and high expectations that finally we, the women’s NGOs of the world, had arrived!

Governments were at last listening to us. Unlike the previous world conferences on women in Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi.

In spite of the mud, the rain, the wet and the cramped discomfort of our accommodation in Huarou where we NGOs were located – far from the government delegations in the capital – our voices, our ideas, our knowledge and experiences were going to be taken seriously by the official delegations. And they were. The resultant great document to emerge from the Fourth World Conference for Women, the BPfA was going to dominate and map our strategies and work effectively to upgrade the status of women in every aspect of their lives, as described in the 12 Action Areas of the Platform, to the present day. And every year subsequent to that September conference, at the UN CSW we would be here in New York to, we imagined, work in close consultation with our governments to monitor and evaluate progress on implementation of the BPFA, identify gaps and emerging issues. Soon, we were sure, we would see a dramatic reduction in violence to women and real progress in achieving gender equality, justice for women, and a better and more peaceful world.

I had my own “niche” reason for coming to Beijing in 1995. It was at the NGO forum that I hosted the very first international workshop on Widows and Human Rights. Although as a human rights lawyer and a feminist I had been deeply engaged in status of women’s issues for many years previously, I had never given a thought to the situation of widows, probably, like so many people, assuming that the majority of them were elderly women who were mostly respected and well looked after by their families. So it was not a topic that we should be concerned with.

But all that changed when my own husband died. A short time later, a Malawi lady I was helping with her case, walked into my London home and before she had even sat down exclaimed “You mean your husband’s brothers let you stay here and keep all these things”?

In Beijing those attending my workshop - in particular those women coming from Africa and South Asia - agreed that widows now needed their own international organisation to bring their voices to the international community, to the UN, donors, governments and other NGOs working in the field of gender and human rights. But little did we anticipate then that during the following 15 years the world would see an unprecedented increase in the numbers of widows of all ages, struggling to survive in extreme poverty, most vulnerable to all forms of violence, including rape and sexual exploitation as well as harmful traditional practices. These increases – and there is no reliable data - due to armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, violence and the proliferation of small arms as well as the HIV?Aids pandemic.

We did set up the organisation. First EWD (Empowering Widows in Development) and later after 9/11 with so many new conflicts breaking out in the Balkans, Africa, South Asia and spurred on by the plight of Afghan widows under the Taliban regime, Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD). And for fifteen years we have been striving, through zealous attendance at every annual CSW, to at least get a mention of widowhood in the documents that emerge as the “Agreed Conclusions” from every session. Each of the 12 Action Areas of the plan – describing the situation and what governments should do in relation, for example, to tackling women’s poverty, health, education, employment, gender violence, human rights , their role in decision-making etc is relevant to, has pertinence to the life-styles, needs and roles of widows. But there is never a mention. Not in the original Platform nor in the Outcome Document agreed in Beijing + 5 in 2000. Nor today in the Secretary-General’s report on implementation of the BPFA. The omission is scandalous and demonstrates the powerlessness of NGOs and women at the grass-roots to influence those in government to listen to them and consult with them on a real cooperative basis.

Therefore, unlike my mood as I travelled to Beijing, yesterday, as I flew into JFK - to be greeted by snow, sludge and cold - I was filled with sadness, even despair, and actual reluctance to be here at all.

Successive attendances at the UN CSW have seen the NGOs being increasingly “ghettoised”. There was a time when, although we only had “observer” status at the UN, we were in the building. We could hold our meetings within the UN enclave thus more likely to have these attended by government delegates and UN programme people. We could co-chair meetings with UNIFEM and UNDAW in, for example, the DAG Hammarskold theatre, or in the various conference halls. Now we seem to just talk to each other. And it was easier then to apply for and obtain that precious an essential ECOSOC status, essential to be accredited to attend the UN and to be eligible to be considered at least for the exceptional honour of being allowed to speak for not more than 3 minutes to the government delegates at plenaries. Now it is a nightmare process involving hours of trying to answer impossible questions. The message is clear and a changed one. The UN does not really want us around.

Moreover, this year has been the worst of all years to be coming to the CSW for even the limited space of Church Centre, opposite the UN building, where the NGOs could hold their “parallel events” has been drastically reduced. Thus many of us, although mostly poorly funded, have had to race around to find alternative meeting places to rent. Even farther away from the UN itself. So that one wonders why we are here at all, as we could easily be meeting in some suburban town or city far away from expensive New York, in our own regions. The gains of Beijing to ensure the place of civil society in decision-making have been rolled back and we are once more fighting to be heard.

So yes, I was reluctant to come to New York, concerned to spend so much of our scarce financial resources on a stay here where apart from the glorious networking, meeting old friends, making new alliances, no one in authority, i.e. the governments, was going to hear our voices: hear our clamour and demand for better actions, more resources, more action because the truth is – and governments will not admit it – that in many countries of the world women are suffering from poverty, abuse and violence as never before.

As the numbers of widows and wives of the missing, many of them being young mothers even girl children, so has their poverty and helplessness. No one knows exactly how many widows there are in any conflict afflicted country. Rough estimates speak of over 70,000 widows begging in Kabul; maybe 3 million widows in Iraq; over 50% of widows in Eastern Congo are widows; 30,000 Tamil widows, many victims of rape by the military, are under the age of 30 and 65% of Nepal widows are under the age of 25.

But yesterday I attended the first day of the NGO consultation and suddenly my mood changed! Just to be there, among such a wonderful diversity of women from all over the world, seeing old friends and making new ones, all of us united and uniting in our determination not to give up the struggle for justice.

What a treat to hear quite enthralling and memorable presentations from such eloquent and articulate speakers as the fiery and indefatigable Gertrude Mongella (who had chaired the Beijing Conference and is now President of the Pan-African Parliament) and the quite wonderful, wise Nyaradzayi Gumbodzavanda, the General Secretary of the YWCA (Zimbabwe). Her speech was so thoughtful, so constructive, so brave I would love to see her nominated for consideration as the Under Secretary-General of the new UN Gender Entity.

Of course I was growling with resentment and frustration when not one of the principal panellists in the first session, not even Dr Sima Samar, formerly the Minister for Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan and now Chair of the AIHC (Independent Human Rights Commission) mentioned widows. Yes, they all mentioned other examples of gender violence, but not one the appalling customs pertaining to widowhood, such as degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites; deprivation of inheritance, land and property rights; forced remarriage to a dead husband’s brother, and economic and sexual exploitation.

But then something extraordinary occurred! I took my place in the queue of women waiting to speak with a statement or a question and spoke for less than 2 minutes. I simply said

“the most neglected of all gender and human rights issues is widowhood yet it is nowhere mentioned in the BPFA nor in the Sectary-General’s report. Never before have we seen such an explosion in the numbers of widows and wives of the disappeared. What does the Panel suggest to ensure that these women have their voices heard, their needs addressed and their crucial roles as sole supporters of families acknowledged and supported?”

Only one person on the first panel gave any mention to my question but by the end of the first day of the NGO consultation, widows got mentioned by subsequent panelists at least four times! I and my supporters and colleagues were jubilant. But will this acknowledgment get through to our governments? Will we see some proper reference this time around in the document emerging at the end of next week?

I am not sure how I will feel at the end of this week, but today I feel less depressed than when I left Heathrow.


About the author

Margaret Owen is the Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy. She is the Patron of Peace in Kurdistan, a UK barrister and an international women’s human rights activist. Follow her on twitter @electionmargie


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