Conflict widows: agents of change and peacebuilding

The rise of religious fundamentalism and conflict is diminishing widows to the status of a chattel. Their key role as sole supporters of families must be prioritised in negotiations for conflict prevention and resolution.

Margaret Owen
10 June 2015

I am always at a loss to understand why the status of widows continues to be so neglected, especially in conflict and post-conflict environments, given their basic and long-term needs, and their crucial roles as sole supporters of families, as key players in peace building and the restoration of the social fabric of society in their communities and countries generally.

Widowhood is not just the root cause of poverty and inequality across the generations but also the reason that millions of children of widows, daughters as well as sons, vital to a society’s prosperity and future, are denied education and well being. Without any qualifications, they will become a cost and not a benefit to their society. Apart from the human rights and ethical issues, this neglect will have irrevocable social economic and political consequences.  For poverty, inequality – especially gender inequality – and injustice, if not addressed in peace processes, will fuel future conflicts.

Never has the world witnessed such an increase in the numbers of widows as we have seen in the MENA region in the last decades. They and their children are the poorest of the poor, exploited, wretched, and abused, with little or no acknowledgement or support for their important social and economic contributions to the development of peace negotiations, and the stability of communities.

Conflict, revolutions, sectarian strife, violent extremism, lawlessness has created uncounted millions of widows, of all ages, as well as wives of the forcibly disappeared or “missing”.  Abandoned, without adult males to protect them and negotiate for essential services, mostly devoid of pensions or other social security, these female heads of households, their children and other dependents, are vulnerable to many diverse forms of discrimination, exploitation and abuse, including sexual violence, during conflicts – and long after conflicts are formally concluded.

Widows, in particular rural widows living in traditional communities, even in times of relative peace, may lose rank and status on the death of their husbands, as cultural practices and discriminatory attitudes take precedence over modern laws, constitutional guarantees and international standards about gender equality and the empowerment of women. They may be forced to remain secluded within their husband’s family home, as domestic or agricultural slaves, “inherited” by a husband’s brother in a forced remarriage, or excluded and abandoned if they do not adhere to such customs, losing all rights to inheritance or share in land and property. In which case they have few alternatives for survival, except exploitative informal sector labour and begging, and are at high risk of violence and sexual exploitation.

But conflict situations exacerbate widows’ vulnerability, particularly when they are internally displaced or become refugees.

The rise of religious fundamentalism in the present unstable environments perpetuates and extends discriminatory patriarchal attitudes and harmful traditional practices relating to widowhood. These intensify the stigma, diminishing widows to the status of a chattel, someone without any rights, or access to justice. Yet widows should never be seen exclusively as victims of patriarchal oppression, but recognised, in conflict environments, as agents of change, and potential peace builders, often more able than married women to empathise and make contacts with other bereaved women across ethnic and religious divides.  For widows, whatever their background or the political, religious, ethnic identity of their dead husbands, have so much in common, in their fervent wish for peace, and for a future for their children.

The violence, revolutions, invasions, occupations, civil wars and insurrections in the MENA region have caused millions of civilian deaths in addition to the loss of life among the armed forces and other militias. Moreover, unknown numbers of men are missing, and their wives may never discover whether they are held in prison, or are lying nameless in some mass grave.

The dearth of reliable statistics on the numbers, ages, and situation of widows is one of the main obstacles to galvanising the UN, governments, and aid agencies into actions to address this topic.  It is vital that data, quantitative and qualitative, is gathered, using methodologies that are appropriate to safeguard the dignity of the women interviewed so that all aspects of their lives that need addressing, including such details as support systems, coping survival strategies, and experiences of violence, including sexual violence, are properly documented to inform policy makers. And, in the case of violations of the law, especially sexual violence, forced remarriage, sexual slavery, the evidence must be gathered as a strong basis for criminal prosecutions of the perpetrators under national or international laws.

The richest source of information is the widows themselves, and a wealth of anecdotal and narrative material exists, gathered through the initiatives of grass-roots women’s associations undertaking their own surveys and research, securing the trust of traumatised bereaved women, many of whom, having witnessed the murder of their husbands, are also victims of rape.  A shocking common feature of war is the separation of men and boys from the women and girls, the killing of the former and the rape of the latter. Conflict widows suffer multiple stigmas, as women, as widows, as rape victims, refugees, IDPs and also members of ethnic minorities in situations where sectarian strife prevails.

Widows are of all ages, including elderly grandmothers, young mothers, and even young girl children coming from communities where child marriage is still a prevalent practice. Widows’ voices are rarely heard, and so fail to inform the national or international policies concerned with conflict resolution and peace processes. It is also not recognised that widows are frequently the sole breadwinners, supporting children, and other dependents, often the elderly, the sick, and the wounded.

We all had hopes that the UN SCR 1325 and the subsequent eight UN SCR Resolutions on Women Peace and Security would ensure that gender issues, which should accommodate those relating to widowhood, would be made central in conflict resolution, prevention and peace building negotiations, but 15 years after this Resolution was agreed by Member States, implementation is poor.  If the requirement to analyse the impact of the conflict on women and girls were fully complied with, then the complex cross-cutting issues of widowhood would be prioritised, and where peace tables are established, widows would be represented on them.

Lebanon is now home to over 1.3 million registered refugees from Syria, 80% of them women and children, of whom many are widows or wives of the “disappeared”. There are many widows among the Palestinian refugees who have lived here since the Naqba of 1948, and stateless widows and asylum-seeking wives of the disappeared from Iraq, adding to the numbers of Lebanese widows. Lebanese hospitality is being stretched to the limit.

The UNHCR reports that women, mainly widows, head more than 145,000 Syrian refugee households. Possible estimates for the numbers of widows in Iraq range between one million to four million, or 10% of all adult women. We have no figures for child widows. The Iraq-Iran war, the killings under Saddam Hussein, the invasion and the occupation and now the barbaric murders by ISIS, suicide bombings, and general violence have hugely increased the numbers. In the KRG also, apart from the refugee influx from Syria and Iraq, there are some 50,000 Kurdish widow survivors of the Halabja and Anfal chemical weapons atrocity of 1988, who have still many unmet needs as they age and their health further deteriorates. Recently, at a Parallel Event hosted by Palestinian women at the 2015 UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I was told that in Gaza two thirds of all women there were widows.

The international community needs to recognise the semi-autonomous cantons of Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, which now host over 1.5 million internally displaced persons among who are many female headed households dependent mainly on the services and support of the Rojava women’s NGOs. These women and children are refugees in all but name, but are unregistered by the UNHCR and, to date, no UN or Red Cross humanitarian aid has been forthcoming to support them.

They include not just Kurds, but Arabs, Turkmen, and Assyrians, including Christians.  Rojava’s Charter gives all of them equal protection and rights, for it is based on freedom of belief, gender equality, and pluralism. A model for all of Syria and other countries in this region when, in due time, peace accords must be drawn up in which guarantees of gender equality must be central if lasting peace is to be secured.

Many Kurdish fighters from the People’s Defence Units (YPG and YPJ) have lost their lives defending Rojava against ISIS, and Rojava is also home to many Kurdish women whose husbands died in the regime’s prisons. Half the People’s Defence Units are women. The ways in which the gender equality provisions in the Charter are actually implemented from the centre down to the village is a model for best practice everywhere.

There is another fact that we must face, however difficult. If it is true that at least 5,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in the last two years in Syria and Iraq, then we must address the situation of thousands more widows including the women who were abducted and forcibly married to the fighters as “trophy wives”, or taken in “temporary marriages”.  Their fate is unknown but all these women deserve our concern and help, whatever faction their dead husband was allied to or the circumstances of their marriage. Nor can we, actually, turn our backs on the “Jihadi widows”, the girls who were lured from other countries to join these terrorists.

Refugee widows whether living in camps, or struggling to survive and care for their children in other basic accommodation, in Lebanon, KRG, Jordan and Turkey, are all experiencing very challenging times. The majority have never had to work outside the home, have been totally dependent on their husbands, many are illiterate, and have had no income-generating training, to help them survive. They are vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, and to sexual slavery.

There have been several reports that impoverished refugee widows, unable to find the rents demanded for accommodation in their host countries, are forced into prostitution, and are targeted by traffickers for sexual exploitation. Some of these women have been arrested as prostitutes; in Iraq there have been reports of young widows recruited as suicide bombers.

A common survival strategy of destitute widows is to withdraw children from school, to provide some income from exploitative child labour, or sell or give away their daughters in a child marriage.  This is happening in the KRG, and in Lebanon.  Widows unable to feed all their children choose to marry off their young daughters, hoping and praying that such marriages will at least keep them safe from sexual violence.

In the KRG camps and in Iraq there are reports of marriage agencies arranging marriages of young girl brides, often the daughters of refugee widows, to older Arab men from the Gulf States who will pay a dowry. An Iraqi project was offering 10 million Iraqi dinars (about $8,500) to men in their late 30s or 40s if they would marry a widow. Hanaa Adwar, who heads Al-Amal, a Baghdad-based NGO, rejected this proposal for tackling the vast numbers of widows as “cruelty” – forcing the widow to marry another man just to get government help.

What needs to be done: filling the data gap

  • - Data should be disaggregated by marital status as well as by age and gender, so as to obtain reliable statistics on the numbers of widows.
  • - Support should be given to widows to form their own associations, so they have to have a collective voice to articulate their needs, describe their roles, and influence policy developments and help fill the data gap through mapping and profiling their members in every town, village, refugee and IDP camp, wherever they are.
  • - Their experiences of human rights violations, including sexual violence, require expert documentation and there should be full compliance with the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, 1325  (and subsequent ones) and the - International Protocol on the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict.
  • - Widows should be represented at Peace Tables, Law Reform Commissions and Constitution Redrafting Committees, the development of National Action Plans(NAPs) and implementation of the CEDAW (UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) to ensure that widowhood issues are addressed when countries make their four-yearly reports.
  • -  Article 5 of the CEDAW requires the use of all available methods to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct such as attitudes to widows.
  • - Given the huge increase in the numbers of widows, Member States should support the opening of a special desk at UN WOMEN headquarters in New York.
  •  - The UN WOMEN regional office should be asked to host a conference on widowhood and FHHs in the Middle East, in view of the huge numbers of widows and wives of the missing among the refugee population and living precarious lives in their own war-torn countries.
  • - The UN should appoint a Special Representative to address Widowhood in Conflict.
  • - The UN Secretary General should commission a special report on Widowhood in Conflict - on the lines of the Graça Machel Children in Conflict report.

 This is a slightly edited version of a speech given by Margaret Owen at the International Conference on Upholding Gendered Peace at a Time of War: Academics and Activists Speak Out on the Shifting Places of Women in the Arab World in Beirut, 8-11 June. 


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