On its website dedicated to International Widow’s Day, the United Nations calls the abuse of widows and their children “one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today.”
Across a wide range of countries, religions and ethnic groups, when a woman’s husband dies, she is left destitute – often illiterate or uneducated with no access to credit or other economic resources – rendering her unable to support herself or her family, according to the UN.
According to UN Women’s 2018 Turning Promises into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, nearly one-in-ten of the estimated 258 million widows globally live in extreme poverty – with little or no input to policies impacting their survival.
In 2010 the General Assembly set aside 23 June each year to pay tribute to the millions of living spouses who endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness and discrimination.
While violence against women is one of the most widespread violations of human rights, widows may be at particularly high risk. In many countries widows find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence – including sexual abuse – related to inheritance, land and property disputes.
Moreover, they often endure poor nutrition, inadequate shelter and vulnerability to violence – combined with a lack of access to health care. Although they are frequently rape victims and, through economic insecurity, sometimes driven to sex work, their gynecological needs often go unaddressed.