When a group of major agencies convened late last year to launch a new report on women in post-conflict regions, they made a glaring omission. The report authors, which include the Global Women’s Institute and George Washington University, issued the report, titled “Intersections of Violence against Women and Girls with State-Building and Peace-Building,” to address gaps in our understanding of the gendered nature of conflict.
But in the 101 pages of the report, there is not one single mention of widows – despite their being the largest subsect of women and girls who are the invisible victims of armed conflict.
When reports like these are commissioned by governments, donors, UN agencies and NGOs, it is vital that people like widows – long afflicted by such neglect – are offered the chance to speak the truth and be heard. Their presence is all the more important since income, gender, opportunity and income and wealth inequalities remain unquantified, with scant data in the midst of strongly-held cultural beliefs afflicting widows of all ages.
Widows have crucial social and economic roles – as sole parents, as key agents of change in peace-building, and as people who urgently deserve restorative justice, including accountability of the perpetrators of crimes inflicted on them.
The plight of widows is already little known, hidden under a blanket of silence, with minimal funding for interventions that specifically target them as right holders. As a widow with my own harrowing personal tale, I created the Rona Foundation in response to the serious issues afflicting the marginalized widows in my home country of Kenya.
We’ve worked with widows in Kenya for more than a decade, and have become a pioneer organization in the sector. The dire situation of widows and the rampant cases of widow abuse in many parts of Kenya have since emerged as a forgotten component of the struggle for gender equality.
According to the Loomba Foundation’s World Widow’s Report, Kenya is amongst the top 50 countries leading in socio-economic discrimination against widows. In Kenya, widows face more than just economic inequities. The practice of widow eviction continues, despite its illegality under both international and regional law.
The Kenyan government has failed to take two necessary measures – one, to alleviate the problem of widow eviction as required under international law, and secondly, to outlaw harmful cultural practices meted on women when they lose their husbands.
It’s all the more important to include widows given the relationship between economic growth and worsening inequality. Kenya’s economy is developing, and women, as the majority of the population, also represent the majority of the country’s opportunities for innovation, creativity, and economic productivity. Yet their legal and economic status leaves them without incentives to be productive workers – and the entire economy of Kenya suffers.
According to a World Bank report on women entrepreneurs in Kenya, “a growing amount of research shows that countries that fail to address gender barriers are losing out on significant economic growth.” When women share in the ownership of land and the income generated from their labor, they are more productive, and the economy, environment, and communities benefit. Women should be at the center of development, but since men run nearly every formal aspect of the Kenyan economy, a woman’s rights virtually disappear when her husband dies.
Take, for example, Kenya’s Law of Succession Act. While it states that “no person shall, for any purpose, take possession or dispose of, or otherwise intermeddle with, any free property of a deceased person” – going so far as to criminalizing such actions – it does not specifically forbid the act of evicting a widow from the house she shared with her deceased husband.
The prohibition applies only to “free property.” By definition, therefore, it does not apply to any communally-owned or unregistered land, leaving widows with homes on those lands without any protection from dispossession or intermeddling. Nor does the Act punish the use of force, threats, or other forms of coercion to pressure a widow into leaving her home.
Even where widows do inherit a home, the Act’s focus makes clear that it is only a temporary right by granting her a mere life interest that she must forfeit if she remarries. This is a direct violation of a widow’s right to housing – one of the most basic human rights enshrined in the Kenyan constitution.
This lack of rights, according to the Charter for the Rights of Widows – a document developed by Widows for Peace through Democracy – is why the majority of widows are in extreme poverty. Widows are also more likely to face other forms of disadvantage. Dominique van de Walle, a lead economist for the World Bank, has pointed out that widows across Africa face worse health and nutritional outcomes relative to women in their first union.
“The prevalence of HIV/AIDS varies enormously across marital status, with widows having the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in most countries where we have data,” says van de Walle. “These women are doubly disadvantaged, and societies often do little to help them cope with this extraordinary challenge.”
While their faces may grace the carefully worded and expensively produced reports, the stories of widows who have lived through the consequences of policies like the Law of Succession are missing. The silence is all the more deafening given Kenya’s massive population of more than 4 million widows, according to the 2009 Population Census report. Rona’s work lays the first major steps towards mainstreaming the rights of widows in Kenya.
The Global Women’s Institute, Care, International Rescue Committee and UKaid have done a remarkable job publishing their report on violence against women in post-conflict areas. What is missing are the voices of the forgotten widows of all ages, whose numbers increase daily due to armed conflict and HIV/AIDS. They must be heard in order to ensure that policies are developed that ensure their protection, recognition and empowerment.
While the policy recommendations in that report are useful, the exclusion of widows must not go unnoticed. Any holistic gender analysis of peace and conflict must include widows. These resilient women undergo unspoken forms of abuse, including land and property grabbing and cleansing ceremonies, with no access to justice or social protection. They’re mostly missing in data gathering, gender mainstreaming, and in policy documents.
Therefore, when recommendations speak about ‘what works’, it’s important to describe what works for whom. We who have been working on these widowhood issues for decades implore all the major agencies to focus on widowhood as a major development, human rights and peace building issue. No longer can widows be excluded in the fight against gender inequalities and for social and economic justice.