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Sati and the Disempowerment of Widows


The Global Persecution of Women

Human Rights

Article 1, UDHR.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 3, UDHR.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5, UDHR.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 17, UDHR.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.


Mrs. Graca Machel, from message to opening plenary of the 2001 conference of Widows Rights International.

Wherever they are, irrespective of their religion and culture, a common feature of widowhood is the violence perpetrated against them at the hands of near relatives and condoned by the inaction of governments. Many widows are hounded from their homes and denied access to essential resources such as shelter and land to grow food. They are also subject to degrading and life-threatening traditional practices. They have no status and often they are figures of shame and ridicule. This neglect of millions of widows has irrevocable long term implications for the future well-being and sustainable development of all our societies.

Laura Slap-Shelton, “Empowering Widows in Development Finally Heard in the United Nations,”, 20 March 2001.



We the participants at THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON WIDOWS, wish to draw the attention of governments, the UN and its agencies, the media, and civil society organisations, to the huge increase in the number of widows worldwide due to armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We also wish to highlight the multiple but often hidden human rights violations experienced by widows and child widows in many countries. These violations are embedded in social, political, economic, religious, cultural and traditional beliefs and practices.

As a result of these beliefs and harmful practices, widows and child widows are rendered invisible and subjected to numerous human rights violations including:

• Violence in all its varied forms
• Extreme poverty
• Social and cultural exclusion and marginalisation
• Oppression and neglect
• Treatment as objects, commodities or chattels
• Denial of access to education, health and basic services
• Multiple obstacles to accessing justice systems
• Denial of their autonomy and independence

We strongly condemn

• The continuing formulation, use and enforcement of laws and customs that perpetuate violation of women's human rights, through legal, cultural and religious institutions
• The mental, physical, emotional and sexual violation of widows
• The absence of the right of widows to inheritance, property and land ownership
• The systematic victimisation, exploitation or neglect of older widows
• The neglect and abuse of children of widows and child widows

We therefore strongly recommend that

• action be taken to end cruel, dehumanising, repugnant and discriminatory
practices and that laws be strengthened to ensure the punishment of perpetrators
• customary, religious and modern laws reinforcing discriminatory practices be abolished
• legal reforms in inheritance and landownership rights be enacted and enforced
• independent research be undertaken into the extent of violations against widows, old and young
• all aspects of government policy making agendas mainstream widows' concerns
• national, regional, international meetings be regularly convened to ensure that the collective voices of widows are heard
• the rights of widows be included in all appropriate international instruments

We ask governments, the UN and its agencies, the media, and civil society organisations to recognise the contribution that widows have already made and will continue to make to the development of their societies and demand urgent and immediate action be taken to end these violations.

This resolution was agreed by the participants at the WIDOWS WITHOUT RIGHTS Conference held in London on February 6 and 7, 2001, and organised by Empowering Widows in Development (EWD), London. Participants came from the following countries:

• Afghanistan
• Ghana
• India
• Kosovo
• Malaw
• Mozambique
• Nigeria
• Rwanda
• Sri Lanka
• Tanzania
• Zambia
• Sweden
• UK

EWD is a development agency which aims to

• raise awareness and understanding of the problems encountered by widows in developing countries and by widows in situations of conflict in the North
• promote the status of widows' rights on the international human rights agenda, and assist developing country organisations which support widows to overcome poverty and marginalization


Extract from "India wife dies on husband's pyre," BBC News, 22 August 2006.

Sati, or the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre, is believed to have originated 700 years ago.

The rare practice mostly happens in parts of northern and central India. …

Cases rare

The last incident, involving a 65-year-old woman, took place in Madhya Pradesh in 2002.

The most high-profile sati incident was in Rajasthan in 1987 when 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burned to death.

The case sparked national and international outrage.

Police charged Roop Kanwar's father-in-law and brother-in-law with forcing her to sit on the pyre with her husband's body, but the two men were acquitted by an Indian court in October 1996.

Sati is believed to have originated … among the ruling class or Rajputs in India.

The Rajput women burnt themselves after their men were defeated in battles to avoid being taken by the victors. But it came to be seen as a measure of wifely devotion in later years. The custom was outlawed by India's British rulers in 1829 following demands by Indian reformers.

Kamal Patik, “A Leader in the Association of Strong Women Alone, Rajasthan,” WRI Newsletter, 2005.

Kamal Patik, age 40, is the widow of the late Kailash Patik.

I got married when I was 16; my husband was a tailor, sewing at home. I had my first son at 17 and then 2 more sons in quick succession. For each delivery, my in-laws sent me to my parents. My parents having borne all the costs involved, I was returned to my husband and in-laws. My misfortune was that my husband, Kailash, was a drunkard, and beat me regularly. After 10 years of married life, he left me. I stayed on with my in-laws but after some time, they made it clear that they didn’t want me or the children to continue to live with them. I went back to my parents house but when I got there the door was locked and they were gone. I think they must have known I was coming with my three children. I felt as though I had been thrown out on the street.

But I managed to rent a room for me and the three kids, and began to work as a daily wage labourer on construction sites. That’s hard work but I made money and managed to buy all the things I needed for the kids and the house. Then after two years Kailash found me and said he was sorry for all the bad things he had done. But he was still a drunkard and sold all my household things to buy liquor and started beating me again. I was weak and ill and they told me it was TB. Kailash straightened up a little but then he became sick with liver disease because of his alcoholism, and he died. I was then about 35.

Kailash’s death occurred just a little before the first Rajasthan Widows’ Convention held in November 1999. I had heard about the Widows’ Convention and decided to attend. It was there I felt the strength of women together, and got the courage (himat) to reach out and join the Association of Strong Women Alone. I’ve been with them ever since and am now one of its leaders.

Last year my son decided to get married. I badly wanted to attend his marriage, and to carry out the ceremonies performed by the parents of the bridegroom. But as attendance at children’s’ weddings are forbidden to widows, my in-laws firmly opposed my wish to do this. So I talked to the members of my local ASWA Committee. They said “We are with you!” They collected some money from each member, and bought a bright red “chundari” or special cloth that is put over the head of the mother of the groom at the time of the marriage. They bought the “bindees” (the ornamental dot that is stuck on the middle of the forehead – and forbidden to widows), bangles, and a saree. These items are usually given to a mother by her brother or her parental household – so you see for us the Association is the new “family” of its members!

My son’s marriage was to be performed at a group marriage; that’s where many couples of the same caste are married at the same time. Most of the guests are caste members and would be invited to each and all the marriages held on different dates, so it is less expensive for all of us if all the brides and grooms get married at the same time because we can then share the cost of the wedding feast and other preparations.

For my son’s wedding all my fellow members of the Committee rented a jeep to get to the marriage site. They sang songs, put on my “bindee” and bangles, and draped the “chundari” red cloth adorned with a border of gold coloured ribbon over my head. My in-laws were very unhappy – they wanted me to obey tradition but the Association members made them understand that it was necessary to break customs that were hurtful and which marginalized widows.

They asked them: “Where were you all these years when Kamal’s husband was alive and beating her? Did you give her any help then, or after his death when she was alone as a widow??” I also reminded them that I was paying for all the expenses for the marriage, and that they had given me no help. So finally they said “Okay, do what you want.” I joined in the singing and dancing of the women on the stage set up in the hall where the marriages were taking place. By then, the press had arrived to cover the event and I had many fotos taken showing my hennaed hands, my bangles and the chundari. I was so happy and my son was so proud too that I was with him on this auspicious day.

Note from another member of ASWA.

At this group marriage there were couples and their friends and family members from 12 Districts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh; in 10,000 people in all. The members of the Association spoke from the stage, and urged all those attending to abandon the customs of ostracising and marginalizing widows. They called upon all the mothers who had sons or daughters being married, to come up on the stage and join in the dancing – “You have a right to be here, and to celebrate!” Those who came up got the red “tilak” (a streak of red powder or “kunku”) put on their foreheads. ASWA made everyone there understand the need for change. Some people protested, but ultimately, everyone was quiet, some were convinced, and a good atmosphere prevailed.

The repercussions of this event will reach far and wide, and contribute to breaking down the customs which are based on the superstition that widows are inauspicious.

"Woman suspected of practising witchcraft lynched," The Hinud, 1 Sept. 2004.

Siliguri, Sept. 1. (UNI): A widow, suspected of practising witchcraft, was lynched by her neighbours at tribal-dominated Kharibari village in Darjeeling district on Sunday, police said.

85-year-old Joba Hembron was killed at her West Gochia Joth residence.

Police said one of the attackers was detained for interrogation. For some weeks people had been accusing Joba of practising witchcraft and on Sunday night some people beat her to death, the police added.

Meanwhile, the Backward Classes Welfare Department of Jalpaiguri district in a report said at least 70 people had been killed in the name of witch hunting since 1994. Most of them were old women.

Kuldip Nayar, “Crimes against women,” PUCL [People’s Union for Civil Liberties, India], March 2003.

The evil of Sati is still eulogized. In one recent incident in Rajasthan many men, some from even the victim's family, were party to the ritual of a widow made to sit on her husband's funeral pyre. The police as usual reached late. The law fails to stop such practices because it is not deterrent enough. But the worst part is that society does not show anger or horror over such incidents. Somehow the belief persists that tradition sanctifies the practice. Why stick one's neck out? The supporters of Hindutva should try and eliminate such evils instead of planning another Gujarat elsewhere in the country. Any reform has to come from within. But most men are not interested.

"Eradicate superstition," The Tribune, Chandigarh, 13 March 2002.

An old tribal couple in Jharkhand [have been killed] on suspicion of practising witchcraft. The 65-year-old man and his 57-year-old wife were killed by villagers because of rumours that they were practising witchcraft. The villagers went by the word of the local "ojha". He convinced them that the only way to get rid of the evil spirit that had possessed the village was by killing the elderly couple. ...

In India the evil practice of human sacrifice has not yet been uprooted. There is hardly a region where women are not branded as witches and killed by the community members. India has many faces. Most of them are attractive because they represent the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of the country. But the one that should make every civilised and rational Indian hang his head in shame is the one that still believes in black magic, sorcery and witchcraft. ... Social reforms have been introduced in many fields. For instance, the diabolical system of sati has been abolished and laws have been made for dealing with demands for dowry from the bride or her family. Faith in superstition is also a serious problem that requires drastic measures for India to take its rightful place as a civilised nation in the evolving global village.

"Widows face double discrimination," Inter Presss Service, 5 Feb. 2002.

NEW DELHI, Feb. 5 (IPS) -- Throughout South Asia, widows are considered inauspicious and harbingers of evil, often branded as witches and "husband eaters," and shunned as the very sight of them is believed to bring bad luck.

In India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, widows are turned out of their houses, excluded from weddings and other family functions, and deprived of property rights.

They are doubly discriminated against -- because they are women and because they are widows.

Radhika Sachdev, “India: 'Women In White' - The Ill-treatment Of Widows,” Humanscape, Winter 2001.

"In every fourth household there is a widow. And with few exceptions, she is under tremendous economic, social and psychological pressure.

The problem of India's widows is not confined to Vrindavan, Mathura, Tirupathi and the other holy towns where widows have traditionally congregated.

According to the 1991 census, there are 33 million widows in India, 50 percent of whom are over the age of 50. Only a very small minority of widows could claim to be comfortable, secure and well-looked-after.

So many are the deprivations that a widow faces, that the mortality rate for widows is a shocking 85 percent higher than it is for married women. India has amongst the highest prevalence of widowhood in the world. The incidence of widowhood rises sharply with age: 64 percent among women aged 60 and above, and 80 percent among women aged 70.

An Indian woman who survives to old age is therefore almost certain to become a widow. In contrast, only 2.5 percent of Indian men are widowers...

A sample survey revealed that though 88 percent of widows remain in their deceased husband's village, less than 3 percent are allowed to stay in the same house. The others are either abandoned, often by their own sons to appropriate the father's property, or sent back to their parents' houses.

Widow remarriage is prohibited only in the upper castes. In most other cases, widows are allowed to remarry - including levirate marriages to their brothers-in-law - but often don't choose to, either because of their children, or because a man agreeing to marry a widow is generally impoverished.

An extensive survey of widows conducted recently across seven states reveals the immense psychological and social pressures that widows are under even today: they are accused of being 'responsible' for their husband's death. They are pressurised to observe restrictive codes of dress and behaviour. They are excluded from religious and social life. They are physically and sexually abused. And they are deprived of their property.


In theory 51 perecent of widows have rights to a share in their husband's land. But these rights are often violated in practice by brothers-in-law. If not forced to will away her financial independence, a widow is subjected to emotional blackmail by her own children or forced into leviratic marriage with her brother-in-law so that she has no decisive power either over her property or on her financial status.

One of the main reasons for widow disempowerment is that all property rights are governed by personal laws, which are patriarchal...more or less akin to customary laws.

The Hindu Succession Act allows the widow to inherit equally with sons and daughters. But it also has a questionable provision whereby the husband, if he so wishes, can will away all his property, leaving the widow no support... The basic contention is that a widow must have the right of maintenance and a portion of the landed property even if otherwise willed.

To ensure that there is no gap between the law and its implementation, women should be made legally literate. Also registration of marriages must be made compulsory to prevent anyone taking advantage of prevailing loopholes in the law to deprive a widow of her legitimate rights..."

Empowering Widows in Development, India. 1999.

The “inauspiciousness” of a Hindu widow is well known. She is stigmatized as a woman who has failed to safeguard her husband’s life. Under ancient law, her husband is God, and when she dies she is expected to manifest inconsolable grief for the rest of her life. The extreme consequence of this belief is the practice of sati - where a wife immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although made a criminal offense in the last century and in spite of further legislation in recent times, sati still occasionally occurs in the backward villages of rural North India.

When a sati takes place, the protests of the women’s movement and human rights activists are heard not only in India but all around the world. The sensational facts seize the attention of the media everywhere, especially if the wife is young. But the day-to-day brutalized and tragic life of an Indian widow is an unjustly neglected issue.

It is impossible in this short briefing to describe the life of an Indian widow in detail since there are great variations depending on state, caste, economic and social level, education and whether the family is rural or urban. Broadly speaking, the widows in the north suffer greater discrimination and marghinalisation than widows in the south.

But the higher the caste, the greater may be the restrictions on a widow’s life style.

Thus, a widow from a relatively well off family may be subject to greater cruelty and abuse by her in-laws than a lower caste widow who is freer to work outside in the public space, and to remarry.


Jane Opolot, Project Director, Hope for Widows, Pallisa, Uganda, “Malisa’s Story: Promoting Women’s Rights through Alternative Dispute Resolution, “ WRI Newsletter, No. 7.

Sixty year old Malisa has been a widow for over fifteen years. Her deceased husband left six women, of which she was the second wife. The first wife died before their husband. Upon their husband’s death, his brothers inherited the four widows. However, Malisa refused to be inherited. Consequently, she was persecuted, and told to leave the homestead although she had nowhere to go. Because her father had passed away many years prior to the death of her husband, she would not be welcomed back to his home because only young widows are allowed to go back to their parents because they can easily re-marry and obtain a dowry to refund the relatives of the deceased husband.

Malisa had only one son, who had died in the mid-nineties, and his wife also passed away a year later. It is believed that they died of AIDS but Malisa claims her son and daughter-in-law were bewitched by her co-wives. Malisa persuaded her deceased son’s first born girl to get married so that they could n order to obtain a dowry but the dowry was appropriated by Mailsa’s brothers- in- law.

In 1996, one of her elder stepsons took away the land she was cultivating. Whenever she tried to reclaim the land, she was told that when she got married, she did not bring any land from her father’s home, therefore she was not entitled to the land. She was even threatened that if she continued her efforts to regain her land, she would be evicted and sent back to her father’s home.

Malisa decided to approach the clan leaders, who unfortunately shared the same view with her stepson; that a widow has no right to own land. Malisa continued her efforts and after some time, the case was forwarded to the sub county chief, and later appealed to the Magistrates court. Unfortunately, the case has been in court for seven years and she does not know how long it will continue since she is not even represented by a lawyer. She is growing old, with no land to cultivate. The result is that she now has to go digging in other people’s gardens in order to get food for subsistence. She was told by her friends that the only way she could succeed was for her to employ a lawyer, but she does not have enough money for a lawyer.

In Mallisa’s own words:

“I had the chance to attend a village meeting where people for Woman of Purpose were explaining to us about Widows Rights. I later approached the organisation for financial assistance to enable me employ a lawyer; but they said they are unable to do so but would help me handle the matter through Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). These members of Woman of Purpose came and met my deceased husband’s clan-mates. Although my step son was first adamant and even refused to attend the first meeting, he later softened and agreed to attend subsequent meetings. In all, the negotiations totalled to five meetings with the clan members. The members from Woman of Purpose, explained many things to my in-laws and told them that I have a right to own and dig in my gardens. They later gave me back my piece of land together with the rice that was growing on it and my life changed for the better”

Malisa’s story is a result of the work of the Community Resource Assistants, trained by Woman of Purpose, who are now doing a tremendous job within the community! Each Assistant is allocated to be in charge of a specific area of operation although they are encouraged to consult each other and work as a team. The Community’s response to these Community Resource Assistants has been very encouraging. The organisation is literally overwhelmed with the number of requests we receive to handle disputes and explain human/widows rights. The Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms of mediation and negotiation have helped many widows get favourable treatment from their in-laws. We also take time and talk to the Community about Stress Management and Communication Skills. We discovered that some of these disputes are aggravated by stress and poor communication e.g. a stressed widow goes shouting at a stressed brother in law resulting in a serious quarrel or fight, yet the situation could have been handled amicably if both parties had managed their own stress and communicated their concerns effectively.

United States

”The true story of a widow in California,” Widows Rights International Newsletter, 2005.

I was happily married to a progressive Lebanese national for 14 years until he died of cancer at 47. His family had always been very kind to me, but suddenly changed when he died and they accused me of hoarding funds that never existed and expected me to hand over assets for my brother-in-law to manage. Because in California the husband and wife are equal sharers in assets acquired during the marriage and because my husband and I began the marriage penniless and together built a business, I refused my in laws requests. Although it could have been much, much worse, given that all this began immediately after losing my husband, I was profoundly disturbed by their treatment of me and I did receive a few threats through second parties that my brother in law "was going to come and see me."

While a firm letter from a Los Angeles lawyer put an end to the in-laws contacting me, I cannot imagine what would have happened to me had I lived in a country that does not grant women equal rights. Nevertheless, I do live with a certain fear that my brother-in-law, who has always been an irrational and mercurial type, may indeed someday "come and see me." I live alone, but I sleep between a pit bull and a magnum loaded with hollow points. Since I can no longer afford to maintain my house, I will soon be putting it on the market and moving back to my family. I probably will receive a good deal of money because the house has a lot of equity, but my fear will be even greater that when they eventually learn I have sold the house my husband (and I) built, they will be inflamed with jealousy and may try to trace my new location and threaten my elderly father or brother.

A point I think should be mentioned is that it is not only in the third world or among third worlders in the first world where a widow wears a bullseye. In the four years of my widowhood (I am now 41) I have also experienced Western men trying to take the advantage when they realize I am a widow. Immediately the concern is whether I inherited a large sum of money (if only!).

I think there must also be some male-circulated myth that young widows are starving for sex and so a man need not make the effort to discern if she is at all attracted to him. Then as with any female on her own, service people such as handymen enjoy a good game of screw-the-widow for extra pocket money.


“Appendix 15. Memorandum from Empowering Widows in Development,” Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Select Committee on International Development, United Kingdom Parliament, January 1999.


2. Having listened, as an observer, to the evidence given to you on Tuesday 26 January (British Council; Womankind Worldwide; GAD network (of which we are a member)[31], we felt that it was important to bring to the IDC's attention the desperate low status of widows in many developing countries, especially those in the Indian sub-continent and in Africa. Their situation is very distinct from that of other women as they are singled out for special oppressive treatment in many different cultures. Since the majority of women will one day become widows, and a great number will spend the major part of their lives in stigmatised widowhood, the issues to be addressed are fundamental to the status of women throughout their lives…..

5. The very poorest in poor countries are most often the widows and their dependants. The low status, constraints, discrimination, violence, marginalisation, and breach of fundamental rights to which they are victims to is a feature of widowhood across a wide spectrum of geographical regions, religions, ethnic groups, castes and class. The picture is so whether the ethnic group is patrilineal or matrilineal, or the widow lives in rural or urban communities, is educated or illiterate. The discrimination, stigma, lack of rights (inheritance), and systematic violence in the private sphere of the family and in the public space is a cross-cultural phenomenon.

6. Distressingly, in spite of the wide-spread and serious maltreatment of widows and their families, and the fact that their poverty is recognised by their communities in many "wealth-ranking" PRA studies undertaken by the World Bank, EU and DFID, the causes of their powerlessness and poverty have never been adequately addressed by current programmes and policies. This is mainly because the roots lie in tradition, culture, custom and local norms which governments and donors are unwilling to penetrate even though so much injustice to women is based there.

7. This is especially regrettable since the issues relating to female widowhood cut across so many acknowledged priority themes: human rights, violence, the girl child, reproductive health, AIDS, violence, refugees, poverty, land ownership and use, sustainable development through agriculture and equal access to services in education, health, and the justice system.

8. We trust that this report will kick-start DFID into much greater and more ground-breaking work to help governments tackle the stigma of widowhood which has such a deleterious impact on society and development in general. …

10. Change will only occur when widows themselves get together to organise for change.

11. We present our evidence to the committee in two parts:

First, we will outline as briefly as possible the main aspects of widowhood, which are cause for grave concern. Secondly, we will make some recommendations for policy makers and planners.


12. Dispelling myths:

Due to migration, urbanisation, poverty, families and family support systems are breaking up. In consequence many widows can no longer rely on support of their sons in widowhood, infirmity, old age.

It is male family members who are the main oppressors of widows rather than their protectors.

Daughters tend to marry "away" and cannot support widowed mothers.

In many cultures widows cannot remarry of their own free will. But poverty and powerlessness may force them into non-consensual relationships such as "widow inheritance", "levirate" or casual sexual relationships.

Women are living much longer, and longer than men. The increasing numbers of older widows are often seen as unwilling and threatening burdens on the younger community. Old age is often no longer respected and old women suffer violence, abuse and often accusations of "witchcraft". Nicknames in the vernacular across cultures reflect the shameful status of the widow. (see below)

Widows are of all ages, not just old. In traditional communities where child marriage is practised, many widows are young children or girls, or young mothers with a family to feed. Yet the stigma of widowhood affects even young and child widows, and the daughters of widows.


13. Inheritance

Under many systems of traditional and customary law, widows have no rights to inherit their husband's estate.

Even when laws give them limited rights to inherit—such as under Muslim Law, or the 1956 Hindu Inheritance Law—they are often deprived of this inheritance by their male relatives. (Bangladesh, India)

Even where modern law or law reforms provide that women should inherit equally with men, under local interpretations of custom and tradition, the modern law is not enforced.

It is local law or patriarchal family decisions, which are the main determinants of widows' lives, not the state modern law.

In consequence, millions of widows and children are evicted from their homes and land, their household and other property is seized, and they are made destitute. Often it is the male relatives—brothers-in-law—who are the main perpetrators of these robberies and evictions. "Property-grabbing" and "chasing-off" are now almost household words for actions against widows, and actually incorporated into legislation (ineffective and unenforced) in several jurisdictions.

In "purdah" cultures, widows may be secluded in the house of male relatives, exploited as household slaves, or given to temples to beg and chant for their survival or as temple prostitutes. (India)

Eviction creates homelessness, landlessness and destitution. In rural areas, widows no longer have access to land to grow food for their families.

Widows are often deprived of custody of their children (especially males) since they belong to the lineage and not to the mother, increasing isolation and destitution in later years.

14. Poverty

Widows are the poorest of all categories of women because they have no inheritance rights, no right to own or use land, often no shelter, no food, no cash-income, no education, no employment skills.

Poverty of widows it is not merely to do with their lack of cash-income and resources; it is also about their lack of respect, dignity and joy in life. (We welcome the new non-economic definitions of poverty adopted by DFID influenced by Robert Chambers' work "Whose Reality Now?")

The burial and mourning rites are often so long-drawn out and so rigid that they prohibit a widow from working outside the house.

Without cash, widows are unable to pay for their children to go to school. Usually is it the girl children who are withdrawn first from education.

Widows' children are withdrawn from school to care for younger siblings whilst the widowed mother searches for food or work.

Widows' daughters are withdrawn from school since, fatherless, they are more vulnerable to rape by school mates and by teachers.

The poverty of widows forces them to give away their young daughters to domestic service, sex work, or early marriage.

Without a cash-income or land to grow food, the nutrition of widows and children becomes very poor.

Without a cash-income, with poor nutrition, shelter, clothing, health of the family is affected, but health care (medicine) is inaccessible.

Poverty makes widows very vulnerable to sexual harassment, rape and violence.

The cycle of poverty entraps them as they seek highly exploitative work in the unregulated informal sector: slave-like domestic service; casual field labourer; prostitution.

The poverty of widows is visited upon their children who are sick, under-nourished, uneducated, scorned, and destined for a life of disadvantage, insecurity and vulnerability.

This poverty has implications for the whole of society, because discrimination against widows affects the future well being of society. In some countries (especially those hit by AIDS or civil unrest) 60 per cent of all women are widows, and 70 per cent of children dependent on poor widows. Neglecting this issue is bad development policy.


15. Violence occurs in the private sphere of the family and in the public space. Gender-related violence within the family, by family-members

Violence often accompanies widows' disputes over property. Seventy-five per cent of caseloads in many women's legal advice clinics are about widows' claims to property and protection from violence. Many widows speak of being beaten; raped, nearly killed in order to make them leave the house, land, village.

Very few women can afford, or have the courage, to attempt to access the justice-system, to secure legal advice and good legal representation to fight cases in the courts or bring their tormentors to justice.

Village heads, traditional and religious court officials, lawyers, magistrates and judges are often fundamentally prejudiced against women's complaints about "traditional practices" and family matters. Lawyers working for branches of FIDA (International Federation of Women Lawyers) often have little chance to win cases in these circumstances.

Mourning and burial rites. Degrading and threatening traditional practices, such as FGM, have been denounced by successive international treaties such as CEDAW, the Children's Convention, and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence. But these practices, including "ritual cleansing by sex", scarification, restrictions on diet and clothing, continue unabated and are particularly physically life threatening to widows because of the risk of HIV/AIDS. Many of the mourning and burial rites represent human rights infringements, but even where some countries have legislated (eg Ghana) there has been no enforcement.

Gender-Related Domestic Violence against widows. In so many countries, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, many countries in Africa, widows are systematically and severely beaten, raped, accused of murder and witchcraft, thrown out of the village, verbally abused, sometimes stoned to death by family members. Many widows commit suicide rather than face the every-day persecution and torment. Yet in all the many lists of examples of gender-related violence appearing in the FLS, the Beijing PFA, the women and development literature (FGM, dowry deaths, acid burning, wife-beating, female foeticide), the horrendous and widespread widow-violence is never mentioned.

Sati does occasionally occur in backward villages in India, and although no one has ever been prosecuted under anti- gender-violence Indian legislation, there has always been much publicity over these incidents. But the day-to-day misery of Indian widows' lives is not addressed.

16. Violence against widows in the public sphere

Because widows have such low status, they are easy targets for vilification. Village leaders, police, public officials have endorsed this image of the widow as a predator, a burden, and a threat.

Many of the nicknames for widows in the vernacular, across a wide range of regions and countries are synonymous with "prostitute", "witch" (rani, raki, daken).

17. Human Rights and Access to Justice System and International Human Rights Laws

The present government has committed itself to promoting human rights but it has tended to approach only the human rights of men in the context of acts committed by the state.

It has failed to focus on the gross breaches of human rights of women, and on the omission by governments to protect women from human rights breaches by NON-STATE ACTORS.

It has been unwilling to address the complex problems arising from a pluralist legal system, where women's lives are governed by local interpretations of tradition, custom, religion to their detriment, and where the modern law does not penetrate.

DFID needs to explore ways in which governments and NGOs can be helped to educate traditional leaders and communities on the human rights of women (and widows).

Widows are so totally without any rights that they cannot, in their poverty and isolation, dare even to stand up to be counted, hidden away as they are in the private area of family, tradition, custom and religion.

Judges, magistrates, lawyers and paralegals are ill-informed, ignorant; unaware of the precedence that international human rights law should take over traditional, religious or modern law.

Judges, magistrates, lawyers, etc are ill-informed on the status of the CEDAW and other international treaties (ratified by their governments).

Judges, magistrates, lawyers and women generally are mainly unaware that case law (precedents) exists which declares the universality and dominance of international human rights law.

Widows are never specifically mentioned in the CEDAW, in FLS (except in context of ageing) or in the Beijing PFA, but they are "women", and should be helped to access the guarantees in international treaties which their governments have ratified.

18. Organisation and self-help

When EWD was first established following the NGO Workshop in Huariou at the time of the Beijing Women's Conference there were very few grass-roots or national widows' organisations in either South Asia or in Africa. This is not surprising since all women, widows are likely to be the most isolated, secluded within their families and barred from about empowerment and legal rights. The few that existed were most often welfare-orientated or associated with religious institutions. They are not about self-help, power and legal rights.

However, since 1996 many grass-roots widows' groups have been established and these have given widows a collective voice, a strength, a network and a power, but there is still much to be done to link them up, help them to exchange experience with each other, and improve their access to justice systems and the international agenda.


One of the big problems is that "women" are not a vast homogenous group. Within womankind there are many diverse categories, groups, sub-groups who are often outside the remit of conventional programmes and projects.

Agreement on targets say for the year 2005, 2015, may disadvantage sub-groups of women such as widows whose lives are so hidden and who are so isolated from the women who are the main beneficiaries or targets of programmes such as the girl child and the young woman of reproductive age.

Also, whilst EWD greatly welcomes the redefinition of poverty to include social exclusion, lack of dignity, lack of joy and well-being, these situations are not accessible to measurement, analysis, and rating as are other aspects of women's life: reproductive health; contraceptive use; school enrolment; employment and income.

We agree with Womankind that the unequal power relations between men and women are the crux of the problem.

We would like to see donors (DFID, World Bank, EU) putting much great emphasis on monitoring governments' implementation of CEDAW and the Beijing PFA, so that targets should encompass the degree in which the justice system(s) have incorporated the provisions and guarantees in these instruments into their administration and decision-making.

Joy, dignity, respect, equality in a community are not capable of measurement, but accessing legal aid, possessing legal literacy, and equal treatment by law officers who have been trained in women's human rights law are measurable milestones.

We would like to see DFID working much more closely with local NGOs and their umbrella international NGOs to design and operate information-gathering programmes which will monitor progress. Even small grass-roots widows groups are, with support and resources, very well able to provide the evidence needed.

SIDAC (Sweden) and the other Scandinavian donors have a much better record in involving NGO expertise than does DFID. Yet it is the NGOs who have the contacts, the access, the knowledge to make policies, planning and targets meet the real needs of the poorest and most marginalised of women.

The White Paper sets worldwide targets for 2015, whereas the position of women and the rate at which changes can realistically occur differs hugely not just between regions and countries but also between different areas of a country, depending on many factors including culture of religion, ethnic group, civil stability, the state of the justice system, communications. Progress will be at a different rate. In addition, whilst wholeheartedly endorsing and approving a new definition of "poverty" to include social exclusion, lack of dignity, absence of well-being and "joy", it is apparent that no one has yet come up with an effective means of measuring changes in this area.

As long as donors (DFID, World Bank, EU) retreat from prioritising the issue of what governments have done to implement pledges and guarantees agreed in CEDAW and in Beijing PFA as conditions of aid, poor women in poor countries will remain disadvantaged.

International targets on women and development should accommodate an analysis of how far the provisions of the CEDAW have been incorporated into the justice system(s).

For example, monitoring equality in inheritance (see Beijing PFA under the Girl Child) and analysing to what degree women are in fact as well as on paper inheriting from their husbands and fathers would be an effective measure of progress for women.

The availability of Legal Aid, access to justice system, and legal literacy is another area meriting monitoring.

It is the in-country NGOs and the international NGOs which should play key roles in both setting targets within targets and assessing how far they have been reached.

As a new NGO working in the most neglected area of women's rights, we would welcome closer collaboration with DFID, as consultants, in their programmes to reduce women's poverty.

20. Recommendations

DFID should ensure that "widows" are "mainstreamed" in all its programmes and policies relating to women and development. Widows are often excluded from projects reflecting both their isolation and marginalisation, and the extra burdens that consume their time as sole breadwinners and carers.

DFID should explore with FIDA (Federation of Women Lawyers) branches, the Ministries of Justice, Health, Women, Agriculture, how policy and legal changes can ensure that widows keep land to farm, and have access to appropriate extension services to manage land.

DFID should work with international NGOs such as EWD, Rights and Humanities, Womankind Worldwide, Anti-Slavery International who have the knowledge and the contacts, and find ways to support their work through consultancies.

DFID needs to put greater resources into legal training on human rights that encompasses the rights of women under tradition, and customary/religious systems of law.

DFID should commit specific funds to studying the status (health, poverty) of widows in various countries, using the local and grass-roots widows' NGOs to design the project and undertake the surveys.

DFID, in association with the British Council, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP and local NGOs should monitor the progress on implementation of CEDAW and the Beijing PFA at the local level courts.

Support should be given to widows' national and local NGOs and to efforts to reform land law and inheritance law, including its enforcement.

DFID is committed, in its White Paper, to reducing poverty of the poorest people in the poorest countries. If it focussed on widows and their children, it could be looking at nearly half a countrys' population. By focussing on widowhood, it would at last be tackling the problems at the deepest seat of power: tradition, custom and religion determined by male patriarchy.

31 See Evidence p. 42-58.


The Global Persecution of Women