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International Widows Day

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 28 June 2018

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote International Widows’ Day and to help widows following the finding of The Global Widows Report 2015 that their numbers are increasing due to conflict.

My Lords, I declare an interest as founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation and as the main proponent and instigator of International Widows Day, which takes place on 23 June each year. This is a very timely debate, coming just after that date this year. International Widows Day was launched by the Loomba Foundation here at the House of Lords in 2005. After a tireless campaign, the United Nations adopted 23 June as UN International Widows Day at its 65th General Assembly in 2010.

Now in its 13th year—its eighth under the auspices of the UN—the day is one for coming together and advocating for the rights of widows worldwide; it is a global day of action, raising the profile of widows and the awareness of their plight. From Kenya to Nigeria, and even in Australia, events have taken place to mark the day and give widows a voice. The Loomba Foundation held events in Delhi, attended by India’s Vice-President and its Union Minister for Law and Justice, and in London, attended by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, Senior Deputy Speaker of the House, and other dignitaries in the River Room. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, Minister of State for International Development, also joined us. I thank him.

It may appear strange to some to have a day focused solely on widows, when International Women’s Day on 8 March covers all women, but there are very many reasons why 23 June was granted official status by the UN. In the early days of the Loomba Foundation there was little awareness of what was happening to widows—“invisible, forgotten sufferers”, as our 2010 book on the subject described them. The book, written with the sole purpose of bringing the issues that widows face to the attention of the UN, showed why such a day is needed. It is the precursor to the Global Widows Report 2015.

Back in 2010, there was no mention of widows and the problems they suffer in the millennium development goals. These problems are humanitarian issues on a global scale, from ostracism by their communities to ritualistic cleansing that is really nothing other than rape by a family member or by the community. Widows are often blamed for bringing bad luck to the family and for causing the death of their husband. Land is taken away from them and they are left without any means of providing for their children and dependants. Their dignity is stripped away and at what is a difficult and traumatic time in their lives, on the death of their husbands, they are often left destitute, without the moral and practical support needed to stabilise their lives. These rituals and cultural practices happen in many countries in Africa, south Asia and South America and in many other developing countries. It is for these reasons that the UN recognised that widows should receive special status, due to the double discrimination they face—not only because they are women but because they are widows facing even worse trials and tribulations.

I am pleased to say that today widows are being considered more thoughtfully by Governments, NGOs, stakeholders and global institutions. For example, the Supreme Court of India is currently considering a petition about the welfare of widows. Some 10,000 widows from all over India wrote to the Prime Minister for International Widows Day this year, asking for a widow’s pension. Another example is of a philanthropist in Nigeria who has announced a widows’ economic and empowerment project worth $500,000, while an NGO called Helpline Foundation for the Needy in Abuja has offered 5,000 widows interest-free loans to start businesses.

Awareness of the plight of widows and their children has increased since International Widows Day was established. I feel strongly that without more progress and action to tackle the issues that widows face, it is unlikely that the SDGs will be fulfilled by 2030. The UN, recognising this point, urges Governments to undertake:

“Programmes and policies for ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages”,

especially in the context of action plans to accelerate achieving the SDGs.

Why is it important to consider the SDGs in relation to widows at a time when so much has been achieved in alleviating poverty and on other elements of the SDGs? Well, their numbers are increasing. As the Global Widows Report shows, since 2010 their numbers have risen, in particular due to conflict. The estimated number of widows in 2010 was more than 237 million, but that number had significantly increased by 9% to more than 258 million in 2015. More importantly, it recorded that:

“All regions of the world showed an increase”.

Three years later, with many conflicts going on, it is not hard to imagine that these numbers are still on the rise. The UN reports that:

“Vast numbers of women are widowed due to armed conflict”,

and that:

“In some parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, it is reported that around 50 per cent of women are widows, while there are an estimated three million widows in Iraq and over 70,000 in Kabul, Afghanistan”.

The World Widows Report for 2015, published by the Loomba Foundation and presented to the UN Secretary General and the Prime Minister of India, showed that there is a lack of reliable information on widows in many countries, including the UK. This lack of information underlines the low value placed on issues relating to widows and their children. For International Widows Day, I call on the British Government to examine and monitor the treatment of widows and their children in developing countries, especially with reference to local customs and traditions that discriminate against these women and hold them back from leading fulfilling lives.

I would like to ask the Minister what the Government are doing to promote International Widows Day and to help with the points I have raised. Widows need education and empowerment to make them self-reliant, and thus give them the dignity they deserve. Widows have done nothing wrong and in their moment of sorrow we should stand by them.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for calling for this debate and pay tribute to the work of the Loomba Foundation as it works to highlight the specific needs of widows. Losing a partner will often be the most traumatic experience a person faces and can lead to detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health.

For many of the estimated 258 million widows globally, this grief and loss can be coupled with crushing poverty and persecution. For the estimated 584 million children of these women, this poverty can be extremely difficult to escape and can significantly affect the prosperity of the next generation. Around 11% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty, but globally almost 15% of widows live in extreme poverty where they are unable to meet their basic needs. The number of widows and the situation widows find themselves in are often symptomatic of wider issues in their society, and an effective response cannot fail to consider this within a wider context.

Countries where the number of widows is the highest are those scarred, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has just said, by significant past or current conflict, for example Afghanistan and Ukraine. The Legatum Prosperity Index clearly demonstrates this—I refer to my interests as set out in the register. It shows that a lack of safety and security in a country is the most significant barrier to development and prosperity. The countries at the bottom of the index are those, such as Yemen, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Afghanistan, which have experienced significant conflict. For many women recently widowed in conflict, their situation will be compounded by the effects of that ongoing conflict. Many will become refugees and be at serious risk of being trafficked; 71% of the detected victims of human trafficking are women and girls, and it is known that traffickers prey on women, such as recent widows, who are not accompanied by men and find themselves in vulnerable situations. Many trafficked women may have started their journey as a refugee fleeing war, having lost their partner.

It is also no accident that many of the countries which find themselves in the bottom third of the Legatum Prosperity Index are among those with the poorest record on women’s rights, education and economic empowerment. It is evident that a nation cannot fully reach its potential when only half of its human capital is empowered. When women are unable to access education, are unable to join or strongly discouraged from joining, the workforce and their ability to own or inherit property is diminished, it is unsurprising that the loss of their spouse is devastating. In Yemen, women make up less than 8% of the workforce; in Syria, it is 14%. It is unsurprising therefore that being widowed in those nations compounds an existing economic issue by removing the main source of income with little recourse to making a living in a way that their society accepts. According to UN data, in 28% of developing countries, existing statutory and customary laws do not guarantee women the same inheritance rights as men, and many more countries have societal norms that hinder them.

When women lack rights and equality when their husband is alive, they are even less likely to be afforded them when he dies or is killed. Where widows are the most stigmatised, women are generally stigmatised, so the situation is significantly exacerbated by the additional stigma of widowhood. The Loomba Foundation’s work to empower widows by developing skills is one of the ways in which we can ensure that women’s lives do not spiral into poverty with the loss of their husband.

Attitudes across the world are slowly beginning to shift, however, as the economic sense of women’s empowerment becomes clear. During the genocide in Rwanda, more than 250,000 women were horrifically raped, but now 64% of parliamentarians in that nation are women—the highest proportion of any Parliament in the world. Women across Rwanda played a vital role in rebuilding the country. Gender rights are enshrined in its constitution and changes in law have given women the right to inherit land, share assets with their spouse and obtain credit. This is a key example, which other countries should follow, of the need for and potential of women and widows in rebuilding post-conflict societies.

It must be recognised that the journey to prosperity for nations has to be one of lifting all their peoples and empowering all members of society. The social and economic potential of women and widows globally is enormous. We must make sure that it is harnessed.

My Lords, I should note my entries in the Lords’ register, including my role as vice-president of UNICEF UK and my support for the Welsh-based charity, Positive Women, which of course works with widows.

I acknowledge the remarkable role of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not just in securing this debate for another year to ensure that we recognise International Widows Day here in your Lordships’ House but for the incredible way in which, over the years, he pioneered, championed and then delivered this recognition of the importance of the position faced by so many widows around the world. He first established the day without the support of the UN and then made sure that the UN came in behind it, so that it has become a global phenomenon. His courage and determination is inspiring to me and I am delighted to take part in this debate today, in solidarity with his efforts.

I want to focus my remarks on young widows. There is an incredible amount of data and important analysis in the report. The speeches by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, have outlined a lot of the detail in the overall picture and I do not want to duplicate them. But I am struck by the fact that in a world where one in five girls will be married before the age of 18, and where many of them—perhaps a majority—will be forced into those marriages in countries that are susceptible to violence and conflict, the number of young widows today continues to increase rather than decrease. This is because of those forced marriages and the likelihood of their husbands being involved in conflict, which will lead to them dying and the women being left alone—in many cases, as teenagers with two or three children already by the age of 17 or 18.

When we reflect on the overall situation of widows, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, there is discrimination and inequity, rape and abuse, and the theft of their assets by members of their husband’s family after they are widowed. Given all these terrible things that happen, we can only imagine with some difficulty how much worse that must be if you are 15 or 16 years old. They then face a life with decades of exclusion and discrimination, being shunned by their society and in some cases barred from the ability to practice their faith locally. In many places they are not allowed to accumulate assets or even work, yet they have to look after the children who are the product of a marriage that, even if it was a happy one, ended so abruptly.

There is a real need to recognise that internationally as we work towards the sustainable development goals, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, rightly identified. At the core of those goals is the idea that no one should be left behind. Internationally, when people talk about that objective of leaving no one behind, there tends to be a focus on marginalised ethnic communities in remote places, or on marginalised people with disabilities in societies where there is little in the way of legal rights or the provision of services for them, or other groups that perhaps come to mind more readily. It seems to me, however, that these young widows are one such group—one that could so easily be left behind unless given a particular focus over the next 12 years through the sustainable development goals.

We need, therefore, to do two things. First, as highlighted by the content of the World Widows Report, but also by some of the statements and analysis published in the run-up to International Widows Day this year, we need to disaggregate the data—to work towards disaggregation—so that we get not just the total number of women who become widows, or the total number in poverty around the world, but the breakdown by age, which is a particularly useful tool in designing programmes and strategies to help young women left in this situation. I wonder whether the Minister thinks that is a good idea and whether we could influence the work going on internationally towards disaggregation of the data.

Secondly, we need programmes. I am struck by the new global executive director of UNICEF, who has made a particular effort during her first few months to talk about the need for UNICEF to do more with adolescents. While politicians, governments and international agencies have focused globally on the early years over recent years—as was noted in the previous debate—the importance of working with adolescents, in all sorts of difficult situations around the world, should not be ignored.

These young widows, however, who are essentially adolescents with children, and no legal rights in many cases, need attention from UNICEF and other international bodies. I would be interested to know from the Minister what we can do globally, either to bring donors together or to work to ensure, through our influence in the United Nations, that young widows get the attention that they surely need.

My Lords, I became a widow very recently. The only thing I have suffered from is a bit of loneliness, which is something all widows go through. It is not a big deal, actually, because I have your Lordships’ House and no complaints. Many widows, however, who have no access to lots of other things can suffer greatly from loneliness, especially in this country where there are no family links as there are in other communities. I have known widows who have nobody—nobody ever comes to see them. That is the important issue for the developed countries. Becoming a widow does not mean that you do not have enough to live on or are on the street, but it can mean that often you do not have people to look after you for your own sake. That is important, and it is important to focus on finding family links.

I will, however, just go through some rather more horrible things that happen in other places. In India, for example, a long time ago—actually not so long ago: in the 18th and 19th centuries—they used to burn the widow on the husband’s funeral pyre. Someone called Raja Ram Mohan Roy stopped that. He made the British Government stop the burning of widows. Another extremely important thing that he did for India—I am sad that he is not better known—was that he made sure that English remained a language in India. We should remember how important that has been for India. He was a great man. He has a little memorial in Bristol because he died there and at that time there was no cremation—the burning of bodies was not allowed, so he has a little memorial in the cemetery in Bristol.

Other horrible things of this kind are still going on, to a lesser extent. One of the most horrible is child widows. A girl is betrothed to a boy when they are seven, eight or nine years old. If the boy dies, she is left a widow and cannot marry again. How ridiculous and stupid that is. When I was young, there were lots of ladies who were child widows. They either worked in people’s homes or joined a religious community and spent their lives like that. When I remember them, I think, “What kind of life did they get?”. These things are still happening—not much, but there are still child widows, which is utterly horrible.

The main problem in India, as my noble friend Lord Loomba has said many times, is that a woman has no status. Once she becomes a widow, she becomes a non-person. She is not a human, she is something which has no position in society. If you are rich, it does not matter, but even the rich treat their widows very badly. If you are poor, you are sent to Varanasi, for example, to beg. You sit on the roadside and beg. You have no opportunity to do anything else. Some are taken into temples where they pray and sing at the right moment and get food for doing so. This is no way to treat any woman.

In many places in Africa, when the husband dies, if the woman has something in the house—objects, clothing or anything that can be used by others—the man’s family comes and takes everything. They will empty her house. I know this for a fact because I know women who have gone through it. Nothing is left. They do not have anything they can sell to live off for even a few days. These things are going on around us, and I believe that they will just keep going on. I do not know how you stop the things that people do to each other. We do horrible things, and one of those is what we do to widows.

Before my mother became a widow, my father had very bad dementia and was not in good health. She wanted to have a ritual prayer—I do not know how to translate it into English—for his longevity. She disliked him intensely: she had never liked him. My brother said, “What are you saying? The man is in no state to go on living. He is not enjoying life. He has nothing to live for, but you want to increase his life. Nothing doing”. He stopped her, but she was all ready to carry out a big ritual to keep him living. She was of course very upset when she became a widow, despite the fact that she did not care for her husband at all. She broke her glass bangles, as they do. The saddest thing is that even a woman who should be thinking, “My God, I am free now”—could not do that. I know that my mother-in-law felt that way, but then she was well off and never suffered as a widow because her children were good to her.

I will stop because I have to stop.

My Lords, the speech of my noble friend Lady Flather deserves to be widely read. She has made a number of important points, not least about the position of widows in our own society and the way that toxic loneliness can affect so many people, particularly the elderly. One report suggested that as many as 1 million elderly people do not see a friend, neighbour or relative during the course of an average week. As my noble friend has just said, we all know from personal experience about the importance of family support in those situations.

I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for securing this timely debate on the issues that women face when they are widowed. As others have done already, I commend him on his tireless efforts in achieving United Nations recognition of International Widows Day and for bringing the issues that widows face to the international agenda. I first met my noble friend in the 1970s at the Hindu temple in Edgehill in Liverpool, a neighbourhood I served as a city councillor and went on to represent as a Member of another place.

On Monday, as we have heard, at an event in your Lordships’ House to celebrate International Widows Day, Mrs Cherie Blair said that on first encounter it might be easy to underestimate my noble friend. Anyone who is aware of what he has personally achieved, and of the work which his Loomba Foundation has undertaken, would know that behind his shy, unassuming modesty are a consistency, tenacity and resolve that have turned around thousands of lives for the better.

International Widows Day, on 23 June, is important on many levels. It raises awareness of the injustices faced by many of the world’s 259 million widows—up, as my noble friend said, from 237 million just in 2010. It is also a way of improving their lives and of shining a spotlight on their situation. I hope that as a country we will do more in the future to encourage and promote it. The fear is always that specially designated days become rather tokenistic, but they do not need to be, and they can be used to spearhead public awareness and change. That is what my noble friend has tried to do. However, it is for the Government not just to settle on a day but to look particularly, as I hope the Minister will do, at what markers we have in our DfID programmes for establishing the totality and impact of spending on programmes on widows. I applaud the sterling work that DfID does to provide education and programmes to lift women and girls out of poverty, but I would like to hear from the Minister the facts and figures in relation to widows. What money is being spent and how is it spent to improve the lot of widows? When we know the metrics, we can then see what is being done and be certain that widows are not overlooked in international development and are not “invisible and forgotten” within the projections, calculations and minutiae of our foreign aid budget. That is an increasing challenge.

Through wars in places such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the number of widows is rising exponentially. In Syria there have been 400,000 fatalities, and in the Syrian Zawiya Mountain district alone—a string of about 36 towns and villages on a plateau in the Idlib governorate—one-quarter are widowed women. In all those areas of conflict, women suffer disproportionately, and widows even more so. Let us take Africa as an example. Earlier today, I, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, raised the horrific escalation of violence in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the Fulani militia are leaving a trail of widows behind them. I specifically referred to it in our earlier debate, and others referred to the treatment of those widows in places such as displacement camps.

That brought to mind a visit that I made to Sudan during the civil war, when 2 million people died. In Darfur, I interviewed a widow who told me how her husband had been killed by the Janjaweed militia. She graphically described how she was subsequently raped as she collected firewood to take back to the camp. I have also visited the DRC, where 6 million have died in conflict, and I have heard comparable heartrending stories from widows there.

However, as my noble friend said, it is not just about conflict. Ritualistic practices in Africa play their part too. When Clare Tumushabe, from Uganda, saw her husband die, relatives told her they were taking her six children, along with the land on which she grew her family’s food, and that she would become the third wife of her husband’s oldest brother. That is reminiscent of the points that my noble friend Lady Flather made about the situation in India. After refusing, she was physically attacked. Ultimately, she won a long legal battle and one of the men who attacked her went to jail.

There are other situations where women find themselves thrown on the mercy of others—for example, through de facto widowhood brought on by “wilful neglect”. By that I mean where husbands have abandoned their wives to their fate, left the family home and for all intents and purposes are dead. A few years ago, in my role as the honorary patron of the UK Coptic Association, I had the opportunity to visit a Coptic project in Cairo run by an amazing Coptic woman, Maggie Gobran—often called the “Mother Teresa of Cairo”. There, she helped de facto widows to get back on their feet again, to achieve a meaningful legal status and to be able to provide for themselves and their children. Often “invisible and forgotten”, and robbed of any chance of providing for themselves, they need practical enablement and empowerment, in line with the development goals. We need markers in national and international programmes to say precisely what resources are being set aside to provide elementary dignity.

Countries such as India are making strides to improve the position of widows, but the Supreme Court of India has rightly lamented the lack of interest in the position of widows, calling on the Indian Government to ensure that they are properly trained in skills in order to contribute to the life and prosperity of the country. At the moment, the Loomba Foundation is petitioning for further help for widows from the Indian Government. As my noble friend said, the case is to be heard in the Indian Supreme Court at the end of July. If successful, it will give widows special status as a minority group and allow them the extra help that they so badly need.

Like many, I was brought up to believe in the importance of widows, of orphans, and of aliens in our midst. It is a view shared by many faiths and by people of no faith. It is one whose principles I hope will guide Government policy.

My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not only on commissioning this debate, but also for the work of the Loomba Foundation, which shines a light on many dark practices, which I am sure much of the world is ignorant of.

Widows are often invisible, and the privations that they suffer are largely unknown. But let us face it—poor treatment of widows is not just confined to developing countries. It is found in the west, too. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, spoke about the loneliness of widows everywhere. In America, widows with low educational qualifications can live lives of great financial hardship and insecurity. President Obama observed that many Americans were,

“one medical emergency away from bankruptcy”.

This is even truer of widows. Even here in the United Kingdom, the erosion of the welfare state and the 40% reduction in funding to local councils means that widows can be left to subsist on a fraction of their husband’s pension. There can be disproportionate suffering in the reduced care facilities and benefits.

But our problems in the west pale into insignificance compared with those of developing countries. We have organisations like the Loomba Foundation to thank for exposing the true extent of the problem. I have to say that learning about the way widows are treated in some parts of our planet has left me shocked and distressed. Cultural practices designed to further demean and even endanger the lives of widows abound in some parts of the world. For example, there is the so-called cleansing process, which has been widely documented across sub-Saharan Africa, where she has to drink the water used to cleanse her husband’s body—think of the Ebola epidemic—and perform sexual intercourse with another man, regardless of whether the husband died of AIDS or other infections. Dispossession, destitution and even death can await these women as the husband’s property is removed and she is married off to a male relative, or even cast out, with her children.

I do not want to spend too long describing the plight of these women and their children. Much more important is what can be done by a watching world to help them. Many customs in developing countries are illegal but, in a country of isolated and mostly illiterate communities, they need to know what the laws are, and there has to be some kind of authority to enforce them. Where no formal laws exist on property rights, government needs to pass them and ensure that those responsible for enforcing them, as well as those to whom they apply, understand that these laws override some of the old customs.

I have not talked yet about violence against women and girls. Last year, with VSO, I worked with NGOs and the police in Pakistan to encourage women victims to come forward and to change attitudes. It is a slow process, but who said changing attitudes and culture would not be? But in Pakistan we now have women’s police desks in police stations, and even women’s police stations. Widows have such a key role to play in all societies, but especially in AIDS-torn countries, where they may be some of the few adults left to care for children. They deserve status, and I believe that the strongest card we have to play is through women’s economic empowerment. If widows are equipped, and permitted, to make an economic contribution, they can cease to be seen as a burden and, instead, as an economic asset to the family and community. Very small investments—small to us, but huge to them—combined with education and skills training, can transform the future for both the widow and her children.

The UN, UNICEF, NGOs and Governments can work together to empower widows and raise their status in their communities from a burden to an asset. That is a win-win, for the widows, their communities, the economy and the world.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate; it is because of his commitment that we have International Widows Day. I have had the privilege of participating in this debate in previous years. It is often a time to reflect on the journey that we have been on ourselves. My mother was widowed in the 1960s with four young children. When we talk about economic empowerment, it was certainly needed then. We lived in a tied house because of my father’s job and she faced eviction and searching for a job, but she had community support to ensure that she had that economic empowerment. She also had support because she soon joined a trade union and it was that sort of community that enabled her to continue the fight for women’s empowerment.

The 2015 report, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted the increase in the number of widowed women as a result of conflict and the severity of their living conditions as a consequence. All over the world, women and girls suffer the most from conflict and underdevelopment. In the MENA region, conditions are desperate—we have had many debates about this, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has been one of the initiators of those debates. We have also seen the widespread sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar. The perpetrators, of course, act with impunity, something on which I hope this Government will always continue to push for action.

Successive UK Governments of different political persuasions have championed international women’s rights on issues including girls’ education, preventing sexual violence in conflict and family planning, an important aspect of women’s empowerment. It is important that we build on this record by using our influence as a country to ensure that the gains of recent years are not lost. The progress we have made is under threat, from the Trump Administration’s “global gag rule” on reproductive rights to moves to relax the laws on child marriage in Bangladesh. Many noble Lords in today’s debate have highlighted the problem of child marriage.

The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence, taking many forms, is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights. While it is important to focus on SDG 5 on gender equality—as we have in this debate—the advance of women’s and girls’ rights manifestly makes a substantial contribution to efforts to meet all the SDGs: poverty reduction; improving health and education; and securing peace and security. In particular, on SDG 8 on sustainable development and economic empowerment, support for women and girls provides real opportunities to have choices.

As is often stressed by my noble friend Lord McConnell, we must ensure that the sustainable development goals run through all development priorities in all Whitehall departments, and ensure that the public priority given by the Government to women and girls runs through every one of the SDGs. The Government, through the national action plan on women, peace and security, say they will be putting girls and women at the heart of their work to end conflict in nine countries, including Iraq, Nigeria and South Sudan. We have referred to these countries in debates today, but can the Minister tell us how DfID will promote equality in countries beyond the nine specifically targeted in the national action plan, particularly, as raised by my noble friend, ensuring that no one is left behind?

The national action plan champions girls’ education, a crucial part of DfID’s activities in transforming the lives of those caught up in conflict and promoting global stability. DfID is of course targeting the poorest countries to provide 12 years of education for girls. What work is being done to replicate any successful policies from these schemes, to improve access, specifically to technical and vocational education, as a means of helping to provide employment for girls and women? We have heard about the impact of widowhood on young girls, but is DfID looking at older women, many of whom are widows, to remove the specific barriers to training and employment that deny them the opportunity of economic activity and therefore economic empowerment?

I conclude by repeating my mantra from previous debates: we must work with like-minded Governments throughout the world, but we also need to ensure that all aspects of civil society, including trade unions, church groups and women’s groups, are able to stand up and argue the case for full women’s emancipation.

My Lords, I join others in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba. I had the privilege of being in the River Room, along with several other noble Lords here, for what was a wonderful occasion. There were some really passionate speeches and lots of concrete examples and testimony of the work that the Loomba Foundation has been doing to help those in need around the world. We are all hugely grateful to the noble Lord for tabling this important debate in the week of International Widows Day, of which he has been a tireless advocate, helping to secure it in the international calendar against incredible odds.

It has been a moving debate. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, began by illustrating how often, when people arrived needing compassion, they met stigma and rejection. He called for more data. He also talked about the progress that has been made in India and Nigeria. My noble friend Lady Stroud talked particularly about the crisis in conflict situations, about security and refugees in displacement camps. She also gave some positive examples of progress that has been made in Rwanda since the terrible genocide there. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, challenged us about young women, with his picture of how, because of early, forced marriage, they often become widows in their teenage years. It is almost difficult to comprehend that they could be both mothers and teenagers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, moved us by talking about her own experiences: I am sure we all send our condolences to her, but also assure her of our compassion and friendship. She talked particularly about loneliness as a scourge on society and went on to give examples. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave some staggering statistics about the situation in Idlib in Syria. A quarter of women in that area are widows, and he talked about ritualistic practices. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, reminded us to have an element of humility in recognising that this is not exclusively a problem for the developing world: we have our challenges here in the west about this, which of course is why the SDGs apply just as much at home as they do abroad.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, reminded us of the importance of human rights; that older women should not be overlooked or neglected; of the central role of women and girls and of their right to progress on all the human rights which were addressed. Widows are too often invisible. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and others have begun to make them visible. The UN estimates that there are 285 million widows around the world, with more than 115 million of them living in poverty. As has been outlined, widows can be particularly vulnerable and marginalised, facing stigmatisation and deprivations purely because they have lost their husbands. Once widowed, they often confront a denial of inheritance in respect of land rights, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt; degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rights, which again the noble Baroness referred to; and other forms of abuse which makes the loss of a husband only the first in a long series of traumas in their ordeal.

We know that children of widows are often deeply affected, both emotionally and economically, with the daughters of widows facing increased vulnerability to abuse. The Government are committed to tackling the harmful social mores and deep-rooted gender inequality that is at the heart of much of this cruelty and hardship. Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the right thing to do and is in our national interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, made the point that no society can ever hope to lift itself out of poverty by leaving half the population behind—often its most productive half. It is at the heart of tackling the barriers and discrimination faced by widows and their children. It is fundamental to building good global prosperity and peaceful society. It is a key part of a value-based global Britain.

In recent decades, the world has made progress towards gender equality. However, we need look only at the findings of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on global widows to know that we have not gone far enough and that special focus needs to be paid to reach the most marginalised if we are to ensure that no one is left behind.

The UK is an international leader on gender equality. In March, the Secretary of State for International Development launched DfID’s new strategic vision for gender equality. The vision articulates our commitment to ensure that we reach the most marginalised women and girls, which includes widows as well as other groups such as women and girls with disabilities. It also commits us to stepping up our work on gender equality in conflict and crisis situations. It outlines our commitment to continue the work of our interlinked foundations, which have had a transformational effect on the poorest girls and women, the elimination of violence against women and girls, access to sexual and reproductive health rights, girls’ education and women’s economic power.

It articulates our commitment to do more on women’s political empowerment, including to increase women’s participation in leadership, conflict prevention and peace-building processes. As noble Lords have often pointed out, conflict and war is the greatest destroyer of wealth that has ever been conceived. Women and girls are often more vulnerable than men at the front line, who are often armed and trained. This builds on our strong record of helping women and girls, which I readily acknowledge to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has been built on by successive Governments. We can all be proud of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked for details on what help had been provided. Between 2015 and 2017, UK Aid supported 9.8 million women with water, sanitation and hygiene programmes, and reached 7.3 million women and girls with humanitarian assistance. We are also reaching the world’s most vulnerable women and girls with emergency food assistance, education, financial services and large-scale programmes to improve their land and property rights. In Bangladesh, we have helped more than 96,000 extremely poor households headed by widows with cash grants for business, enterprise, skills training and nutritional awareness. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and others will be proud to know that 85% of the households we have supported have graduated out of extreme poverty.

We are also providing increased support to grass-roots, women-led civil society organisations, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned and is also something which the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, urged me to consider further in the debate that we had on this subject in February. Through the recently launched Jo Cox memorial work we have a particular focus on loneliness, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, referred. I think that is a fitting memorial to that great parliamentarian who was so tragically killed.

Recognising the sad reality that humanitarian crises are increasing and conflicts are increasingly protracted, we are stepping up to help more women and girls affected by conflict and crisis. This includes large-scale programmes of support to Rohingya refugees, which will include funding for psychological support for women suffering from the trauma of war and survivors of sexual violence, to which the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred.

At the same time, we are investing in improving even further our ability to reach the most marginalised. In order to know who, where and why people are at risk of being left behind, DfID is investing in data which can be disaggregated on the basis of sex, age, disability status and geography, as the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Alton, requested us to do. We are working with other partners, including the World Bank, to improve statistics, which will enable us to know where help is most needed and where we need to empower vulnerable and marginalised groups, including those in need of assessment and programming. This is particularly important for widows, who are too often invisible in our data and often face multiple forms of discrimination.

We are also fighting for women’s rights on the international stage, helping to secure an ambitious outcome for the Commission on the Status of Women. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked us about the national action plan and which countries will be impacted by it. Through a number of organisations, which the United Kingdom Government are proud to be part of, we were able to raise it, for example, through the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, and at the G7 summit in the first half of this year. We also work with our European friends and colleagues in addressing these issues through the Foreign Affairs Council. We will soon also hold the first Global Disability Summit on 24 July, where gender equality will be a cross-cutting theme.

In this way and across our UK aid portfolio, the Government are leading international efforts to accelerate progress to make discrimination and inequality a thing of the past for all girls and women, giving particular attention to groups such as widows, who are so often the most marginalised and vulnerable, and to offer them hope and a future in a world where no one is left behind. If we do not succeed, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, will be back again on 23 June next year to hold us to account.

Committee adjourned at 5.57 pm.