International Widows' Day Conference at the House of Lords


Speech by Lakshmi Puri, Acting Head of UN Women at the International Widows’ Day Conference at the House of Lords in London, England, 24 June 2013

Lord Loomba,
Ms. Cherie Blair CBE,
Baroness Northover,
Dr. Karan Singh,
Other distinguished panelists and speakers,
Ms. Bianca Jagger,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am here because I care. UN Women cares about widows and all women around the world. Widowhood is a part of womanhood and I am pleased to join you for this special event because I know that you all care and this compassion and commitment is what brings us all together.

I thank Lord Loomba for the opportunity to speak with you today and for his strong commitment to the empowerment of widows. It is because of his dedication that International Widows’ Day was made possible. It is because of his dedication to the empowerment of widows that UN Women has made him a member of UN Women circle of champions on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

I would like to thank the Loomba Foundation for supporting widows around the world to realize their human rights and live free of the stigma, discrimination and injustice.

Today we recognize the hundreds of millions of women in the world who have endured exclusion from their communities and families, who have suffered the loss of their homes, their livelihoods, and their identities, who were subject to abuses all brought on by an event completely out of their control—the death of a husband, of their life partner.

I was honoured to be in London last year to speak on International Widows’ Day and to announce the start of a partnership between the Loomba Foundation and UN Women.

Together with the Loomba Foundation, we are working towards the economic empowerment of widows and advocating for human rights and gender equality. We know that today there are more widows than ever before due to armed conflict, the AIDS pandemic, and the age difference between partners, with many young women being married off to much older men.

We know that in many countries, widows are an invisible community. Widows are young mothers, older women, women living with HIV/AIDS, or even children, whose lives are at risk after the death of a much older husband.

The lack of reliable hard data on widows remains a major obstacle to developing policies and programmes and to shining a light on a much-neglected issue of human rights. We need more research to make widows visible so their needs can be met and they can claim their rights.

I grew up in India. In India alone there are an estimated 44 million widows. And I have seen myself the devastating effects of discrimination against widows, of life-threatening and traumatic mourning and burial rites. I have seen how widows are forced into poverty, denied their rights, and often rendered invisible and voiceless in villages, towns and cities of India.

For so many women all over the world, and particularly in Africa and Asia, but also in Latin America, the loss of a husband is only the first of many traumas. The poverty they suffer is often made worse by little or no access to credit or other economic resources, and by illiteracy or lack of education. Without education and training, widows cannot support themselves or their families.

Poverty not only has a woman’s face, it has also a widows’ face. An estimated 115 million widows currently live in poverty, and 81 million have suffered violence and physical abuse, some at the hands of their own family members.

Conflicts, natural disasters and humanitarian situations around the world have also generated widows and their fight is a concern. I am here today because I know that we are making progress, but we also have a lot of work ahead.

Together we must erase the stigma of widowhood, the barriers widows face to resources and economic opportunities to survive, and the high risk to widows of sexual abuse and exploitation.
We must end the manipulation of inheritance laws to deprive widows of assets and entitlements on cultural, religious or social grounds.

And we must ensure that widows of all ages and their children are treated as equal human beings with equal human rights, including the right to shape their own futures and live lives with confidence and dignity.

We know that widows are more than victims; they are mothers, caregivers and heads of households. They are agents of change with their own dreams and their own voices that need to be heard. They are women with dignity whose rights must be protected.

That is why UN Women works with widows to rebuild their lives and to demand equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal participation in society.

We support women’s access to education and healthcare, to social protection, to legal assistance, and to justice. We support their participation in decision-making and public life. We advocate for national laws and policies guided by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The cooperation between UN Women and the Loomba Foundation combines the efforts and strengths of our organizations to promote the economic empowerment of widows.

We are working together in India to advance the rights of widows so they can move from exclusion to empowerment and take charge of their own futures. By providing skills training and livelihood support, widows are earning an income, taking care of business and their lives.

We’ve joined forces in Malawi, where we support national consultations to secure livelihoods for widows, based on a baseline study on the status and opportunities of widows in the country.

And in Guatemala, our organizations are working to advance the rights of widows who lost their husbands in internal armed conflict. We support organized widows to address conflict-related sexual violence and strengthen political dialogue to rebuild peace and the rule of law and to receive reparations.

UN Women also works in other countries, including Rwanda, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to advance widow’s rights through targeted programmes as part of our work to support women’s economic empowerment, political leadership and participation, women’s role in peace and security, ending violence against women and girls, and gender-responsive budgeting. We are pleased to show you a presentation of our work today, where you will see our work and meet through photos and videos some of the women we serve.

Women’s empowerment and the protection of women’s rights are our greatest weapon to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls. When women and girls who are widowed have opportunities, they can support themselves and their families. When they have the full protection of the law, they can claim their rights to land and property. When they have equal status in their families and their husbands’ families and society, they are treated as equal human beings, and not as an object of derision, shame, suspicion or pity.

Last year, our South Asia office held a conference for widows in India. Shivalingum, a 50-year-old widow from Sri Lanka said: “I would like to tell single women that they need to have self-confidence and they should be able to act for themselves, and not be side lined by anyone.”

We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the Loomba Foundation and to promoting the rights of widows so they will not be sidelined any longer. You can count on UN Women to support the rights of widows on this day and every day!

As we are here at the House of Lords, I would like to take this opportunity to recognize and thank the United Kingdom for the tremendous support to UN Women.

I look forward to hearing everyone’s intervention. Thank you.