Executive Director’s blog series: Ending violence against widows

A 16-part blog series by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Date: Saturday, December 2, 2017

Many widows in Nepal face protracted legal battles for property after their husbands die, as did Rama Shahi, 46. Photo: UN Women/Samir Jung Thapa.

The marriage of a child to an older man sets up a power imbalance that is likely to last a lifetime and carries with it the threat of unwanted pregnancies, health risks and violence. However, in many countries it can be even worse for the woman whose husband dies, as without him she may have no status, no right to property, and no ownership of family assets, even if they were hers before. When 46-year old Rama Shahi, from Dharmasthali in Nepal lost her husband in the 2015 earthquake, his family insisted that they should inherit his property instead and denied her legal rights to her husband’s property.

Lily Thapa, founder of the Women For Human Rights movement in Nepal, a widow herself, and a long-term local partner of UN Women, describes the critical issue facing widows as lack of access to economic resources. “Very few have control of property,” Thapa observes.

This is because many widows do not have access to documentation or legal support, leaving in-laws able to seize a widow’s property after her husband passes away. Yet they are also often the family member who takes over as the head of the household after the death of a partner to provide for children and elderly parents, for example in conflict or emergency situations.

Lily Thapa runs UN Women's long-term partner NGO Women for Human Rights.
Lily Thapa, a widow and founder of Women for Human Rights, speaks with earthquake-affected women in Dharmasthali. Photo: UN Women/Samir Jung Thapa.

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, UN Women put widows like Shahi at the centre of its humanitarian response. Working with Lily Thapa and the Women for Human Rights movement, UN Women set up 14 multipurpose centres to provide protection, security and essential services to vulnerable women, including psychosocial trauma counselling and gender-based violence referrals. The Government of Nepal and international organizations including UN Women have published a new Post-Disaster Needs Assessment which focuses especially on female-headed households and their needs.

There are 285 million widows globally, and over 115 million of them live in deep poverty, in fragile conditions and vulnerable to abuse. Even where women have previously held jobs, their income from pensions or savings in older age is likely to be very much less than that of men. Over women’s lifetimes, taking into account their lower rate of employment, time out of paid work to care for children or other family members and gender pay gaps, there are large cumulative lifetime income gaps, in some countries rising to 75 per cent of what men earn. Women are less likely than men to receive a pension in old age, and even in countries with good pension coverage, women are significantly more likely to suffer poverty in old age than men.

The accumulation of these disadvantages, combined with social exclusion, exposes widows to the risk of violence, or to desperate measures in order to survive. But with the right support, they can safely continue to build their futures. State measures such as legal reform that includes marital property regimes and inheritance laws can help protect widows’ access to assets and land. Social pension schemes, which do not depend on contributions, now exist in more than 100 countries and are a particularly important and promising policy approach.

In a gender unequal world, women who have lost their spouses are uniquely vulnerable to violence and abuse and need specific recognition and attention. They need to be able to access decent jobs, with social protection, including income support for older age, with the law on their side to protect their assets and ensure their safety.