Life after loss: Rights, dignity and justice for widows


The loss of a partner is devastating. For many women, that loss is magnified by a long-term struggle for basic needs, their human rights and dignity. They may be denied inheritance rights to the piece of land that they relied on for livelihood or evicted from their homes, forced into unwanted marriages or traumatizing widowhood rituals. They are stigmatized for life, shunned and shamed. And, many of these abuses go unnoticed, even normalized.

Right now, there are an estimated 258 million[1] widows around the world, and nearly one in ten [2] live in extreme poverty. As women, they have specific needs, but their voices and experiences are often absent from policies that impact their survival.

The United Nations observes 23 June as International Widows Day, to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need.

Today we bring you the voices of some widows we have worked with, as they push through the barriers in pursuit of a life with dignity, joy and aspirations.

“I hope that my daughters find inspiration in my story”—Maha Aasi Emm Ala’a, Syria

Maha Aasi Emm Ala’a, 48, Syrian refugee woman enrolled in the UN Women’s cash-for-work programme as tailor in the ‘Oasis Center for Resilience and Empowerment of Women and Girls’ operated by UN Women in the Za’atari refugee camp. Credits: UN Women/Lauren Rooney
Maha Aasi Emm Ala'a. Photo: UN Women/Lauren Rooney

Maha is a Syrian refugee in her 40s who came to the UN Women-run women’s centre in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp after her husband passed away. She was struggling with severe depression after losing her partner, overwhelmed at the prospect of providing for herself and her children on her own. At the Women’s Oasis, Maha now works as a tailor and has also found a network of women to support her emotionally.

“Not only has the women’s Oasis enabled me to provide for my children, it has become my sanctuary. Surrounded by women of my age who are also overcoming similar situations, we became each other's support system and friends,” Maha says. “I hope that my daughters find inspiration in my story, seeing how far I have come as a woman, despite the circumstances.”

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“My dream is that my community benefits from solar energy”—Martha Alicia Benavente, Guatemala

Martha Alicia Benavente. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Marcia Alicia Benavente. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Martha Alicia Benavente is a mother of four children whom she raised alone after her husband passed away. She recently trained to be a solar engineer at the Barefoot College in India. Before her training, Martha had been a domestic worker, spending long hours at her employer’s home, caring for their children and away from her own, and still not earning enough money to meet all the needs of her family. Now with her skills, she can make solar lamps that can sell for up to 200 Quetzals each, nearly half of what she made in a month as a domestic worker.

The six months I spent in India at the Barefoot College were also not easy. I got sick, and sometimes wondered if it was better to remain a domestic worker. But little by little, I learned everything. I learned how to make solar lamps,” Martha says. “My dream is that my community benefits from solar energy. I made a very big effort to go to India, not only for me, but for the whole community. People come up to me and say, we are so happy that you’re back. Now we will have light!”

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“Now, for the first time in my life I can say something is mine”—Khateeja Mallah, Pakistan

Durdana, a once landless woman farmer, proudly shows off her land and Land Tenancy Agreement in Dadu District, Sindh Province, Pakistan. Photo: UN Women/Faria Salman
Khateeja Mallah. Photo: UN Women/Faria Salman

Farming is all that Khateeja Mallah has known. She began working in the fields with her father as a child, then married at age 13 and continued farming with her husband. When her husband passed, she was left with eight children to support, and no formal entitlement to the crop or the land where she worked, because land doesn’t get passed down to women where she is from. She and more than 1,000 other landless women farmers received land tenancy rights through tenancy agreements, in which landlords leased their land to women farmers for an agreed time, giving them access to the land, a place to live and the chance to run the farms and receive a portion of the profits. The women also learned how to prepare the tenancy agreements and map their lands.

“Having legal access to land, a place to live, and receiving a share of the crops that I plant and harvest was unimaginable. [Until] I learned of my rights and the benefits of tenancy agreements and,” says Khateeja. “Now, for the first time in my life I can say something is mine. This land, as far as the eye can see is mine—this paper says so. This is my land and I am its queen!”

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“At least now my children’s generation will not suffer”—Nadege, Togo

Women dance in a village in southern Togo. Photo: UN Women/Vesna Jaric
Women in a village in southern Togo. Photo: UNTF/Vesna Jaric

After Nadege* lost her husband, her community in a village of southern Togo forced her to have sex with a man they selected and made her live in isolation as part of a widowhood ritual. Although Togolese law gives women the right to refuse these harmful practices, the torturous rituals persist in a majority of tribal and rural communities. The rituals deny widows any inheritance, and leave them without access to adequate food and income-generating activities.

Now, with the support of the NGO Alafia, supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (managed by UN Women), Nadege is speaking out against the practices. Alafia is working within rural communities to change the attitudes that perpetuate these harmful widowhood rituals.

“At least now my children’s generation will not suffer. It’s a practice that I wouldn’t wish upon even my enemy,” Nadege says.

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*Name changed to protect the privacy of the individual


[1] Analysis by Loomba Foundation, The Global Widows Report 2015. London, based on compilation of UNSD (United Nations Statistics Division) population data and additional individual country census and population survey data.

[2] UN Women. 2018. Turning Promises into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.