Opening Remarks by Michelle Bachelet at International Widows’ Day Conference

Date: Thursday, June 23, 2011

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the International Widows' Day Conference held at UN Headquarters in New York, 23 June 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to welcome all of you here this morning, together with our distinguished guest, Ms. Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, First Lady of the Gabonese Republic.

Indeed, in addition to her commitment to improving maternal and child health and promoting women's empowerment, the First Lady helped bring about the official United Nations recognition of June 23rd as “International Widows' Day.

Initiated in 2005 by the Loomba Foundation — whose founder, Mr. Raj Loomba, and president, Ms. Cherie Blair, are also here today — International Widows' Day was officially recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in December last year, on the initiative of the Government of Gabon.

Attention to the world's widows is long overdue. This first International Widows' Day is a vital first step in promoting the protection and respect for their rights, across all regions and cultures.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has noted, this day is an occasion to call attention to the challenges women in all countries face at the death of their husbands — whether elderly and alone, or young with young children to raise as a single parent and sole provider. In addition to coping with grief, they may find themselves for the first time without any social safety net.

Many of these women quickly find themselves living in poverty, even if they had not been before. Worldwide, it is estimated that 115 million widows live in extreme poverty, along with their children. In the context of armed conflicts around the world, as well as the HIV and AIDS epidemic, these numbers are increasing.

This reality presents an opportunity and a challenge to countries and the international community, and one which we must all seriously take up.

Let us recall that, in deciding to observe this day, the United Nations General Assembly:

  • emphasized that the economic empowerment of women, including widows is a critical factor in the eradication of poverty;
  • reaffirmed that women, including widowed women, should be an integral part of the society in the State where they reside; and
  • called on Member States, the UN system and other international organizations to give special attention, within their respective mandates, to the situation of widows and their children and to raise awareness of this issue around the world.

This first International Widows' Day itself provides an opportunity to pay tribute to the economic and social contribution of women, including widows, to their societies and, especially, to the unpaid work that they perform in countries around the world.

The situation of widows also highlights the need to empower women economically and strengthen their land, property and inheritance rights in all countries. Recent years have seen a growing number of countries that recognize these rights on equal terms with men.

I am sure that our distinguished panellists today will detail the ways in which deep-rooted gender inequalities impact widows in various countries, in ways that reflect the diversity within this group of women — as well as the difficulties they have in common.

The presence of our panellists today is a reflection of the seriousness that this should be accorded worldwide, both within and outside of government.

We know that, given the opportunity, widows can be vibrant and valued members of the community, making their full contributions to their families and societies. Their potential as leaders in their communities also cannot be overlooked.

UN Women is committed to advancing opportunities for women of all ages, to increase their access to education and employment opportunities, sustainable livelihoods and enable them to live free of gender-based violence. By empowering women early on, we can make sure they can face — and even embrace — the many challenges life presents.

This is especially true in situations of armed conflict when many women are widowed and left homeless and with no source of support. We are committed to making sure that gender equality and women's empowerment will become a “lived reality, not just a mantra.

I am looking forward to an interesting and productive morning — and I am sure these discussions will generate dialogue through which we can all better understand the situation of widows and support them.

Thank you.