Due to armed conflict, revolution, genocide, sectarian strife, violence, and harmful traditional practices including child marriage, there has been an unprecedented rise in the numbers of widows, wives of the disappeared and female headed households throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Widows and female headed households are painfully absent from the statistics of many countries and are rarely mentioned in reports on women’s poverty, development, health , human rights, violence against women and women, peace and security issues. This may be due to conventional methods of gathering data that are unable to accommodate the particular circumstances of widows’ lives, which make them invisible and hard to reach. Their voices are rarely heard.
The absence of reliable statistics prevents the international community and governments from addressing this urgent challenge which impacts so negatively on the children of widows/ female headed households and thus on the well-being of the local community and on the international level as a whole.
Women heads of households / widows suffer from various types of discrimination against them, in many cultures, religions, backgrounds and communities. Many of them suffer from abuse, exploitation and violence: whether economically, socially or sexually on members of their families and their communities at large, sometimes this happens in the context of inheritance, and disputes over land and property. Ignoring issues related to gender and human rights hinders achieving the Millennium Development Goals and hinders progress to equality, development and peace
In regions such as MENA, huge numbers of widows and female headed households have been made homeless, are struggling to survive as refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, and are living in a climate of poverty, gender based violence and fear. They are the poorest of all poor women, and they and their children are particularly vulnerable to all types of exploitation, including sexual violence, forced re-marriage, prostitution and trafficking.
A common survival strategy for this struggle is that they take their children out of school, rely on child labour, or give away their young daughters in marriage, often to older men. Widows find themselves responsible and working as beggars, domestic servants or agricultural labourers, often in slave-like conditions within their own countries, or overseas.
Widows and female headed households should not be seen exclusively as “victims”, rather as important agents of change. They have economic and caring roles in their families and communities. Their voices must be heard in order to influence policy; their needs addressed and their roles supported so that they can rebuild their lives and contribute to their country’s development and prosperity. In a number of countries they have gathered together and formed a strong voice for positive change.
In the light of the current challenging situation and with a view to support positive change for all, we call on all countries in the MENA region to: eliminate the stigma attached to widowhood and change social attitudes; reduce poverty across the generations; eliminate Gender Based Violence and promote gender equality; work within the MDG framework; ensure widows’ children access education; stop child marriage; reduce the spread of HIV and AIDs and reduce societal inequalities that fuel future conflicts.
We call on all countries in the MENA region to:
- Improve data gathering to raise awareness, using widows’ organisations themselves to undertake mapping and profiling of widows.
- Support organisations working with widows and female heads of households to create a collective voice such as a MENA network and host a conference on widowhood and female headed households in the context of the post 2015 MDG framework in autumn 2014.
- Train widows’ associations in how to participate in decision-making; engage in law reforms and address violations of widows’ human rights; for example through the use of domestic laws and international conventions, such as the CEDAW Operational Protocol and UN SCR 1325.
- Support a CEDAW GR (General Recommendation on Widowhood).
- Demand the UN to: appoint a special representative on widowhood; commission a special report on Widows and female headed households in the MENA Region and to demand UN Women to establish a special desk or section with a focus on widowhood.
- To adapt the model widows’ charter to the circumstances of each country, and incorporate it in their national legislation and constitutions.
We thank UN Women and the High Council of Women Affairs in Kurdistan for facilitating and hosting this initial event and look forward to working together to raise awareness and change practice in regard to widows and other female headed households.