Democracy Lab

'Widows Are the Invisible People'

It's high time to end the daily injustices committed against the world's 115 million widows living in poverty.

Outraged over India's widow burnings? Thought so. But widow burnings are rare compared with the cruelty widows young and old put up with every day. They're exploited, discriminated against, sexually abused, and denied their legal rights. Perplexingly, there's little or no international outrage over their fate. That has to change, says U.N. Women's acting head, Lakshmi Puri, who has made widows' rights one of her priorities. If widows don't have the same rights as everyone else, society can't move forward, she tells Foreign Policy.

Why, when there are so many other pressing issues on the agenda, should countries focus more on widows?

Yes, there are many priorities, but countries can't progress when one part of their society is literally left out in the cold. There are more widows than ever before due to armed conflicts, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the age difference between partners, with many girls being married off to much older men. In too many countries, women are vulnerable after their husbands' death: They face discrimination, are disinherited from property, and have very little access to resources and opportunities, including land, decent work, and an income.

In many cases, widows are also victims of exclusion, exploitation, violence, and stigmatization because they're not only widows but also live in poverty or in remote or rural areas. Widows are bearing the brunt of conflicts, natural disasters, displacement, harmful traditional practices, and HIV/AIDS. An estimated 115 million widows currently live in poverty, and 81 million have suffered physical abuse, some from members of their own family. Many of them are young widows who were child brides.

What's the worst place in the world to be a widow today?

It's clear that widows are most affected in places where there's an intersection of poverty, remoteness, and culture and tradition being misinterpreted. That results in multiple discriminations against women. All over the world, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, widows are the invisible people. For many women, the loss of a husband is only the starting point, the first of many traumas.

I grew up in India, a country that has seen much progress. Yet, in India alone there are an estimated 44 million widows. And I've seen firsthand the devastating effects of discrimination against widows, of life-threatening and traumatic mourning and burial rites. I've seen how widows are forced into poverty, evicted from their homes, denied their rights, and often rendered invisible and voiceless.

Across the world, the poverty they suffer is often made worse by little or no access to credit or other economic resources, and by illiteracy or lack of education. And in many countries, but particularly across Africa and Asia, widows find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence -- including sexual abuse -- related to inheritance, land and property disputes. In sub-Saharan Africa there's the additional problem of HIV/AIDS: Widows are blamed for their husbands' death from AIDS, and widows living with HIV are extremely vulnerable.

Whose job is it to ensure that widows get a more humane situation? 

As a society, we can't move forward if widows don't have the same rights as everyone else. We -- national authorities, the United Nations, civil society, NGOs, and the public -- must ensure that widows of all ages and their children are treated as equal human beings. We know that widows are more than victims: They're mothers, farmers, caregivers, heads of households, and part of the labor force. They're contributors to family, society, and economy.

We at U.N. Women promote programs and policies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to end violence against widows and their children, alleviate their poverty, and educate widows of all ages. Empowering them through access to adequate health care, education, decent work, full participation in decision-making, and lives free of violence and abuse would give them a chance to build a secure life after bereavement. In India, where young girls become widows -- largely due to the huge age gap between husband and wife -- we're working with partners to advance the rights of widows by providing skills training and livelihood support so that widows can take care of a business and their lives. And in Guatemala, we're working to advance the rights of widows, mostly from the indigenous community, who lost their husbands in internal armed conflict. We support organized widows to address conflict-related sexual violence and strengthen political dialogue to rebuild peace and the rule of law and to receive reparations.

Many countries are moving toward democracy. Do better laws mean more rights for widows? 

Yes, because true democracy and women's rights are interlinked. Women's empowerment and the protection of women's rights are our greatest weapon to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls. When women and girls who're widowed have the full protection of the law, they can claim their rights to land and property. When they have equal status in their families and their husbands' families and society, they're treated as equal human beings, not as an object of derision, shame, suspicion, or pity.

More generally, gender equality and women's empowerment are usually seen as soft issues, but you see a strong link with foreign policy. Where's the connection?

Gender equality is already a key aspect of the foreign policy of many Western democracies and also increasingly among countries that want to play on the world stage and want to contribute to peace and security, economic growth, social development, and environmental sustainability. In each of these areas, women's empowerment has a critical role to play. If a country wants to make an impact through its foreign policy, it's in its own interest to promote women's empowerment. Many countries have already adopted this strategy and are seeing women's empowerment as instrumental to success in these international areas and domestically as well.

You mentioned widows' situation in your home country of India. Widows apart, India has been seen as the poster child of liberal democracy in the developing world. Now we're suddenly seeing a string of atrocious rapes. Do these rapes point to a more disturbing reality?

Yes, these cases have shaken India, and they have focused global attention on violence against women and girls in India. Violence against women in India takes different forms: acid attacks, rapes, domestic violence, workplace harassment. At the heart of it lie sexism and negative attitudes towards women. The public outrage over these rapes prompted the government to set up a special commission that quickly set up new recommendations on ending violence against women. This, in turn, led to a public debate about the issue, including how to train the police to be gender-sensitive, but equally about prevention, for example addressing gender stereotypes and cultural norms in Indian society. Respect for women is deeply rooted in Indian culture and traditions. For example, three female gods are central in Hinduism. At the same time, sexist behavior and discrimination against women has become rooted over time. So, the rapes have rekindled the gender-equality debate in India like never before.

So, as horrendous as the rapes were, it was good for India to have that wake-up call?

Absolutely. India has had a female prime minister and female chief ministers of some of the largest states, and thanks to quotas 40 percent of our 1.5 million village and district councilors are women. But there's been a conspiracy of silence around crimes against women. A big part of the problem is poverty; poorer women and women in rural areas are more vulnerable. Women are even trafficked.

From negative to positive, from widows to women in general: Which developing country is the best country in which to be a woman today?

We're not in the business of grading countries, but the important thing to know is that awareness in developing countries about gender equality has never been higher. It's no longer a soft issue of human rights but an issue that matters for economic growth. That's a great leap. Countries are realizing that when you invest in women, you invest in communities and entire nations. Women are the highest-return investment you can have. That's why they shouldn't just get microcredit but proper bank loans. But every change begins with awakening and accountability, and many countries are now very advanced in this area, for example Brazil, India, South Africa.



King George: 'Mission Accomplished'?

Britain's counterinsurgency advisor for the American colonies on Washington, Trenton, and the mendacity of the French.

Three years into the continuing rebellion of Great Britain's North American colonies, public and parliamentary criticism of efforts to suppress the insurgency is mounting. FP spoke with General Sir Richard Featherweight, chief counterinsurgency adviser for Britain's North American Security Assistance Force (NOSAF), regarding the state of the conflict:

FP: My Lord, critics argue that the British counterinsurgency campaign in America is foundering. Do you concur?

General Featherweight: Good Sir, this is an absolute falsehood. With the support of our Hessian coalition partners, we have almost broken the insurgency. The army of General Washington...pardon, the so-called army of the so-called General Washington...has been driven into the mountains of the province of Pennsylvania, far from the cities and farms along the coast. His army is depleted, and we are successfully interdicting his supplies and reinforcements. Insurgent strength is melting like snow in June. Mark my words, Sir. By next year, King George III will be able to proclaim "mission accomplished."

FP: But it is now 1779, and hadn't NOSAF assured the British public that the American insurgency would be broken by 1776?

Gen. F: My good fellow, counterinsurgency takes time. One must beware of those peddling quick panaceas like some patent medicine merchant in London. It is true that due to totally unforeseeable circumstances, our security and stabilization efforts have taken longer than expected. But I must protest the negative bias of those in Parliament and the press who are ignoring the immense progress we have made. I am sure you have seen the latest PowerPoints. Tarring and feathering of Loyalist Americans is down 37 percent over last year. Attacks on Coalition supply wagons are down 26 percent. And, reports of Americans singing "Yankee Doodle" have decreased 19 percent. If that last fact alone does not convince you, Sir, I fail to see what will.

FP: My Lord, you maintain that the American insurgents have no popular support. But doesn't the fact that the insurgency continues suggest otherwise?

Gen. F: Rubbish! Our polls show that the vast majority of the American people yearn for the benevolent rule of King George III. They have no desire to live under the oppressive rule of the Continental Congress, or terrorists and criminals like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. It is only due to the pernicious influx of foreign fighters and supplies that the conflict continues.

FP: You mean the French?

Gen. F: I will not identify those outside powers that are responsible for the instability in North America. However, the British government is well aware of who they are and is taking steps to address the problem. We believe the American people reject these meddlers and agitators, and welcome the sovereignty of Great Britain.

FP: There have been reports of a sharp split within the British command over how best to conduct counterinsurgency in America.

Gen. F: I would hardly characterize it as a split. It is more an honorable difference of opinion between those who favor winning the hearts and minds of Americans, versus those who believe a more forceful response is needed. I would say that we have successfully used elements of both strategies. The British Army has kept Washington's army away from strategic areas, which can then experience the benefit of imperial rule without fear of coercion and intimidation by the insurgents.

FP: However, it would appear that the more forceful approach has won out. General Sir Henry Clinton [Combatant Commander for North American Command, or NOCOM] has requested an additional 50,000 British soldiers for what he terms a "surge." Some members of Parliament worry that this would strain Britain's military and financial resources.

Gen. F: I think that we can all agree with King George that Americans have a right to the benefits of monarchical rule. At such a time, it seems unpatriotic to quibble over the expenditure of mere treasure, like some shopkeeper clucking over his accounts. However, as General Clinton has testified, the surge is a temporary measure that will enable us to secure more territory, deprive the insurgents of supplies and sanctuaries, and strengthen colonial authorities until they can assume local security functions.

FP: Some have pointed out that America is a vast, rugged wilderness with rudimentary infrastructure and communications outside of the major population centers. With NOSAF numbering some 90,000 British and German troops, plus some 50,000 Loyalist soldiers, is this not an insufficient number to occupy an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles?

Gen. F: There is no denying that America presents a challenge for a modern European army. The terrain is harsh, and Washington's fighters require much less logistics than British soldiers. They are accustomed to marching barefoot through deep snow and subsisting on a handful of grain. Nonetheless, let us not forget the enormous advantages that Coalition forces enjoy. The Royal Navy confers strategic mobility that allows us to fight at a time and place of our own choosing. Coalition troops are far better trained, equipped and supplied than the insurgents.

FP: And you still maintain that British forces have never lost a battle?

Gen. F: The rebels know they cannot defeat British troops on the battlefield. This is why Washington and his ragtag bands must resort to guerrilla warfare. It is ludicrous that some analysts regard this as clever strategy. It is actually a sign of their impotence in the face of British superiority.

FP: Yet Washington did manage to cross the Delaware and overrun Forward Operating Base Trenton.

Gen. F: As you are aware, our investigation determined that the temporary loss of FOB Trenton was the result of negligence by the local Hessian commander. Of course, this is no way affects our confidence in our Hessian partners.

FP: However, there have been reports of multinational tensions within NOSAF, with the Hessian contingent complaining that they have been sacrificed in battles like Trenton. This has led to speculation that they will withdraw. Does this worry you?

Gen. F: Not at all. Our Coalition partners fully understand the importance of securing stable and lawful rule in North America, and stemming the spread of democracy. They know that the loss of America would jeopardize Europe's overseas colonies and eventually our monarchial system of government in Europe. We must defeat the American insurgency, or jeopardize our European way of life.

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