Leading European Think Tank publishes GFW´ s OPED on International Widows Day

Widows in conflict: an invisible humanitarian crisis

Written by: Elena Saenz Feehan, Interim Executive Director at Global Fund for Widows.

Published by: Friends of Europe

Conflict is a widow maker. The rate of widowhood in conflict zones can be greater than 50% of the female population. Yet widows are invisible in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) narrative and are not even mentioned in any UN Security Council resolution. In many regions, conflict widows have no rights to property, land or nationality and have no physical or social protection. As the EU and the international community strive to deliver stabilisation and peace, their efforts will remain unsuccessful without acknowledging the situation of widows in and of conflict.

The WPS agenda was set to acknowledge that armed conflicts impact women and girls differently from men and boys. However, it remains oblivious to the specific challenges that women face once their partner is deceased or permanently missing. During my years as a peace, security and defence specialist in Brussels, I do not recall a single conversation in which the specific challenges of widows in and of conflict were discussed. Once confronted with the issue and understanding the deep interconnectedness of widowhood, gender-based violence, poverty and conflict, I was baffled about the invisibility of such a humanitarian crisis.

Currently, there are approximately 258 million widows globally.[1] Millions of these are young widows, shouldering the responsibility of caring for dependents. For instance, in Afghanistan, the average age of the widowed female population is 35 years .[2] It is estimated that more than 585 million children depend on their widowed mothers.[3]

"When a woman becomes a widow during a conflict, her limited resources and lack of institutional support make her and her dependents far more susceptible to various types of harm."

In many regions, when a woman becomes a widow, she is labelled with a strong cultural bias and becomes subject to a dual form of marginalisation, as a woman and a widow. Widows are subjected to discrimination and harmful traditional practices that include sexual cleansing rites, disinheritance and loss of income, status and access to basic needs. Without support or opportunity, widows and their children often succumb to a vicious cycle of poverty.

Widows’ unique risks are amplified in conflict and post-conflict zones. When a woman becomes a widow during a conflict, her limited resources and lack of institutional support make her and her dependents far more susceptible to various types of harm, such as sexual violence, forced remarriage, exploitation, human trafficking, forced displacement and extremist recruitment.

Widows and their dependents are more vulnerable to forced displacement. In most conflict regions, customary marriages are not registered and widows have no proof of marriage or property ownership, leaving them susceptible to disinheritance and property-grabbing. Research by the Global Fund for Widows shows that more than 75% of the widows in its programs have been disinherited. When forcedly displaced, it is almost impossible for a widow to claim the property that has been taken from her. Last March, I attended a meeting with a top-ranking representative of the the Ministry of Gender of an East African country severely affected by conflict. In the meeting, the official explained the initiatives that the government had taken to incentivise the return of refugees and displaced people. When asked about the situation of widows, the official simply stated that their return would depend on the willingness of their birth family or their in-laws to take them in. The widows will, therefore, have to decide between becoming dependent on their families (if they can) or accepting an unclear future, deciding to remain displaced or return to their homeland knowing that they will face challenges in accessing livelihood opportunities, familial property and other basic needs services.

"It is […] imperative that widows and their unique needs and perspectives are adequately accounted for in post-conflict reconciliation and development plans."

Unaddressed, widowhood remains one of the most significant drivers of prolonged conflict, with generational effects resonating across denied access to reconciliation, education, or economic opportunity. Widows frequently find themselves unable to cover the costs of their children’s basic needs and education. This thoroughly ushers their daughters into early marriage as a perceived form of “protection”, while making their sons more vulnerable to recruitment by criminal and extremist groups. Data from the UDNP report, Journey to Extremism in Africa, shows that children raised in female-headed households are especially vulnerable to the push factors which drive individuals towards extremism. According to the report, at least one in three extremist recruits came from a widowed household.

However, when protected from discriminatory practices and granted access to necessary social assistance networks, widows can become some of the strongest advocates for development, reconciliation and peace. They are well aware of the devastation that conflict brings and are determined to build a better future for their families. It is, therefore, imperative that widows and their unique needs and perspectives are adequately accounted for in post-conflict reconciliation and development plans, and that widows have equal and meaningful participation at all stages of peace processes, peacebuilding and mediation efforts.

High-level action is much warranted to directly address the needs of widows in and of conflict. It is imperative to raise awareness, increase the availability of widowhood-related data and establish a unified international response. Human rights abuses against widows perpetuate cycles of violence, poverty and conflict. It is time to stop ignoring this acute humanitarian crisis, address the specific needs of widows in conflict and post-conflict and include them in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

[1] United Nations, “International Widows’ Day 23 June
[2] Afghanistan Analysis Network, “Covering for Each Other in Zanabad: The defiant widows of the hill
[3] The Loomba Foundation, “World Widow Report

Access the following link to read the full article published by Friends of Europe: https://www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/critical-thinking-widows-in-conflict-an-invisible-humanitarian-crisis/


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