Widow woes

  • Widows are discounted in statistics, neglected by authorities and lost within the homogeneous women population

Jun 22, 2016-

Pramila, a widowed woman from Kaski, once remarked about her plight in a sorrowful verse. Ironically, it goes as follows: “The ones (widows) who want to live are not granted life. Those who want to die are not allowed death. If there was a means to communicate (with the departed), I would have already done so with the messengers.”

Such is the plight of losing one’s other half for women in our society. The situation is worse as a patriarchal mindset still prevails in the country. The social stigma attached to such widowed women has profound consequences on them, including economic deprivation. Many widows also regularly face physical, psychological and sexual abuse and torture. A few even lose their lives after being accused of witchcraft. Worldwide, with increasing disasters and wars, the number of widows facing hardship in accessing services and support is rising.

Missing efforts

In the case of Nepal, the 2011 Central Bureau of Statistics data revealed that 87 percent of the illiterate widow population in the country were constrained by a lack of resources, with barriers preventing investment and other economic opportunities in the formal economy. Oftentimes, widows are discounted in statistics, neglected by the authorities and lost within the homogeneous women population. But such women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation both within and outside their households owing to their current marital status, for they no longer have a male guardian to ‘protect’ them. Widoes in Nepal are denied of other rights too; for example, they are forced to wear white clothes, restricted from participating in social functions, given limited employment opportunities, and stigmatised due to taboos around remarriage and sexuality. Widows who are not ‘bread winners’ or ‘household heads’ suffer double or triple marginalisation.

In the broader national, bilateral and multilateral level, there are almost no agreements that solely focus on direct and indirect assistance to widows. Despite many conventions, platforms and declarations for women, the issues of widowhood was included neither in the 12 critical areas of Beijing Platform for action 1995, nor in the Millennium Development Goals or in any other international conventions. The post-2015 sustainable development agenda promises to “leave nobody behind”, thereby offering a ray of hope for overcoming stigma associated with marital status. The only acknowledgment of the United Nations (UN) on this issue was done by declaring the first ever International Widows Day by the UN General Assembly on June 23, 2011 to give special recognition to the situation of widows of all ages, regions and cultures. 

However, the journey to the declaration of the International Widows day by the UN was tedious. It should not be forgotten that the single women movement is part of the broader feminist movement which started from different corners of the globe with the aim to condemn patriarchy as the cause of women’s subordination. The first wave of feminism started mostly with the issue of equal treatment for men and women, and equal labour and voting rights. The second wave considered wider issues of sexuality, equal pay, reproductive rights and so on. The third wave arose with the need to address the recognition of diverse groups of women, who are different on the basis of colour, ethnicity, and religion, among others. 

Moving forward 

As a result, even in Nepal the issues of widows along with those of Dalit women, sex workers such as women from the Badi community, women bonded labourers and other groups started being voiced. The government of Nepal ratified the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), thereby expressing its commitment to addressing the human rights issues of women with regard to untouchability, identity, religion, region, marital status and so on. The single women movement also called for social change from the grassroots to the policy level. 

Still, there are questions over whether all the processes and series of events that have been undertaken are simply a campaign launched by various organisations or if they distinctly demonstrate the features of socially shared values and demands from different groups. However, as per the demands from the grassroots level, different policy level interventions have been implemented in the country for single women including widows that challenge the various codes of conduct, and affirm their right to mobility and property, to be a part of decision-making processes and to be recognised as household heads. Regionally, a huge development in this regard has been the Saarc Colombo declaration that seeks to address the issues of single women and widows of South Asia through the submission of a written statement and the presentation of an oral statement at the UN to draw its attention and extend support to widows. 

Today, Nepal has more than 1,550 single women groups, many mobilised as para counselors, para legal volunteers, and human rights defenders. The movement has also helped to fill the gaps within the feminist movement by addressing the issue of women’s diversity. The movement has gone through sacrifice, pain, determination, tireless efforts of single women leaders from villages and cities, human rights activists, policymakers, as well as national and international leaders. And the movement will continue until there is a society without any discrimination on the basis one’s marital status.

Shrestha is senior programme             

manager at Women for Human Rights

Published: 23-06-2016 08:00

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