Destitute widows in the developing world, no matter what country they're in, live in disturbingly similar circumstances, their existence shaped by variations on several appalling themes that I comment on below.
I find myself wanting to protect against the emotional impact of reading these awful accounts. But how can I, a privileged white western financially-independent woman, choose to ignore or be unmoved by the horrific pain and suffering – emotional, physical, financial, social – felt by my sisters around the world every day?
In many cultures, even within countries that have “enlightened” laws, the prevailing status of widows is that they have no legal rights. Oh yes, there are laws on the books that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender or marital status; there are laws that prohibit degrading and abusive practices forced upon them; and there are laws that ensure that the widow will inherit the land and goods belonging to her late husband.
But in cultures where tradition and tribal taboos have ruled for centuries, progressive and enlightened laws don’t carry much weight. Nor is there much motivation to enforce these laws on the part of an over-worked justice system.
And what about the fact that all too many widows are illiterate, or at very least are ignorant of the rights the law gives them? In these cases widows endure terrible privation for the rest of their lives, never knowing that officially it was supposed to be different.
Or what about the fact that an estimated 150+ million widows live in extreme poverty: so the option of seeking legal assistance to get what is rightfully theirs is only a fantasy, a mockery.
That’s why in reality widows have no legal rights. Widows are destitute.
I’ve mentioned the dire poverty that characterizes the existence of perhaps the majority. Why are they so prone to extreme poverty?
In some developing countries there are strong cultural objections to a woman earning an income outside the home. Clearly this seriously limits the widow's options.
In some rural areas where the family’s main source of income would have been farming, traditionally women are not expected or allowed to farm. So what does a widow do to feed her family if she may not farm?
More commonly, the land the widow might have/should have inherited from her late husband is grabbed by his relatives along with any and all farm implements, animals, and even her household possessions. She is left with NOTHING.
Or if she tries to farm the land - if it is left with her - when she goes to sell her produce she finds she is at a serious disadvantage in a man’s economic world.
The widow and her family may have reached extreme poverty even before the death of her husband. If he had been ill for some time, all their money and assets would have been spent on medical care. This is particularly true in so much of sub-Saharan Africa where the HIV/AIDS virus has decimated the male population.
Dire poverty imprisons destitute widows.
Poverty doesn’t bite deep for the widow only.
Her children are usually forced to drop out of school to find work – sometimes literally being sold as slaves – or to start begging.
All too often the girls turn to the sex trade as the only way they can make a living.
And so the younger generation, with no education and no job skills, grows up without hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
A deplorable statistic shows that daughters of widows are highly likely to become widows themselves. This is because the destitute widow will marry off her daughters at a young age as the only way she can provide for them.
They are married to much older men, who most likely will die well before their wife.
And so the cycle of extreme poverty continues in yet another generation of destitute widows.
Violence against widows is how I would describe so much of their experience, from the moment their husband dies.
Adult children may beat, emotionally abuse, or starve a widowed mother until she chooses to leave the family home.
Relatives of the late husband may physically attack the widow until she leaves her property and home, with - or sometimes without - her children.
Some countries (e.g. see the section on Africa ) force widows to endure vile, degrading burial and mourning rites .
There’s the social abuse they suffer, because many countries or cultures will shun widows.
They are abused by being called degrading
epithets. The community will refuse to let them participate in normal community events or
British peer Lord Loomba, who comes from a well-to-do and highly respected family in India, was shocked to find that when he got married his widowed mother was not permitted to be present. Such is the power of ancient cultural traditions.
Many cultures accuse widows of being a curse, even of being a witch. They may accuse the woman of having used her black magic to kill her husband.
So in addition to the trauma of her husband’s dying, the new widow has to endure this vicious slander and ostracization against which she has no protection.
Because she’s held in such contempt, it’s easy for in-laws and neighbors to take from her every single item she possesses, and even turn her out of her house. Not uncommonly they will take her children from her as well.
Her parents and brothers don’t want her to come back to their home, as she represents a financial burden. Adult children often throw their widowed mother out. They do not want her.
So we have women who have been literally stripped of everything! What are they to do?
Some will sell themselves as slaves.
Sometimes they will resort to prostitution (sex for food), despite knowing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
Or if they live in India they may wander to one of the holy cities where there are large colonies of widows of every age living in the most pathetic conditions.
There are some cultures in which a widow will be forced to marry a relative of her late husband. In this way the land that has been left to her, remains in the in-laws’ family.
But if she goes into a polygamous marriage, she and her children may be treated very badly by a previous wife and children.
In most of these countries there is little to no social safety net for widows.
If there is limited provision for some kind of pension, too many widows are unable to access it.
This is because many are illiterate, more don’t know how to navigate the tedious bureaucracy involved, and most do not have money for required bribes or legal assistance.
Widows, having no protector, tend to be considered easy prey for those who want to commit sexual violence, especially rape (both as a weapon of war and in society in general).
Is it any wonder that widows’ lives are marked by ill health: everything from HIV/AIDS or the contagious disease from which their husband died, to severe malnutrition, PTSD, high blood pressure, depression.
And is it any wonder that God, who is compassionate and merciful, requires us to be compassionate and caring too, since we are the only hands and feet He has.
So...do the religions of the world have anything to say about how widows should be treated? Or are widows invisible and excluded in the world of faith as well?