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International Widows Day

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2019

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to empower widows in developing countries and to mark International Widows Day 2019.

My Lords, I am pleased to hold this debate supporting widows ahead of the ninth UN-recognised International Widows Day, and here I declare an interest as founder, chairman and trustee of the Loomba Foundation. International Widows Day is a day of effective action for widows around the world, which was ratified by the United Nations at its 65th General Assembly in 2010. In his message on the first International Widows Day, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that it was,

“an occasion to call attention to the many ‘firsts’ that women must face when their husbands die. In addition to coping with grief, they may find themselves for the first time since marriage without any social safety net. Far too often, widows lack access to inheritance, land tenure, employment and even the means to survive … In countries embroiled in conflicts, women are often widowed young and must bear the heavy burden of caring for their children amid fighting and displacement with no help or support … All widows should be protected by the rights enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other international human rights treaties … We must recognize the important contribution of widows, and we must ensure that they enjoy the rights and social protections they deserve. Death is inevitable, but we can reduce the suffering that widows endure by raising their status and helping them in their hour of need. This will contribute to promoting the full and equal participation of all women in society. And that will bring us closer to ending poverty and promoting peace around the world”.

Since then, International Widows Day has gone from strength to strength as a platform on which to advocate for better treatment of widows but, at a time when global acknowledgement of their suffering is gathering pace, awareness of their plight is still very low and they put up with daily injustices. According to the World Widows Report by the Loomba Foundation, published in 2015, globally there are 259 million widows with 584 million children. The latest data from UN Women shows that the number of widows is increasing, and with that comes more suffering.

Even while there is greater recognition of inhumane behaviour towards women on the deaths of their husbands, widows still face an uphill struggle for their voices to be heard and for justice and fairness in their lives. Widows endure daily obstacles and are at the forefront of gender discrimination as they face double discrimination. They are liable to have their land and property taken away from them, and they suffer sexual abuse and even rape. Many cultural practices blame widows for the deaths of their husbands, and they face stigma and ostracisation from their communities.

In Africa, issues affecting widows are still widespread despite laws that are meant to protect them. The way they are treated can be described only as inhumane. Sexual cleansing via rape, physical violence and losing their inheritance and possessions is rife throughout the continent. All around the world there are “half widows”, women whose husbands are unaccounted for. Those men are more than likely to be dead, but their bodies have not been recovered. If we do not stop these harmful and degrading cultural practices and human rights abuses against widows, we will fail in our attempts to achieve the sustainable development goals. If these obstacles are not removed, and widows are not empowered to live their lives free from injustice, we cannot possibly hope to accomplish the global mission of 50:50 by 2030.

I am proud that there are more and more organisations fighting to help widows lead a better life. These organisations have steadily grown over the years and, like the Loomba Foundation, they have certainly made inroads, but they need more assistance from Governments as they need access to more funds. For instance, Kenya is organising an event to mark International Widows Day, and the theme is “Skills Training for Widows—Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals”. More than 3,000 widows will be in attendance at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre with the chief guest, the President of Kenya. We have also received information from many other countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, Nepal, Bangladesh, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Guatemala, Chile and India, which are marking International Widows Day to raise awareness of this social evil and help widows.

The United Nations sustainable development goals include a number of areas that can have a dramatic effect on helping widows to lead better lives—for example, gender equality, education, eliminating poverty, and peace. DfID’s goals align with those of the United Nations. Tackling poverty is one of its key priorities. Poverty is the root cause of many issues and is certainly a major factor when it comes to widows.

Preventing violence against girls and women is another key area of focus for DfID. Violence against widows, which happens all too often, includes physical abuse and rape. The latter is employed in Africa to “cleanse” widows. Imagine losing your husband and then having to go through this ritual so that any bad omens are removed. These women are also blamed for the deaths of their husbands, so they also have to endure physical violence and verbal abuse.

Many Governments, including the United Kingdom’s, have so far failed to widely acknowledge that widowhood is an urgent human rights issue around the world. Widows barely get a mention by government Ministers, MPs or even DfID. Awareness is one of the areas that we struggle with. We need all the help we can get to let people know what these poor women go through. Marking International Widows Day more prominently every year would certainly aid our work. More importantly, more money would filter down to help widows.

DfID needs to aim more aid and policies at helping widows. Widows are at or near the bottom of the social and economic scale, so helping them helps to reduce extreme poverty, as set out by the United Nations sustainable development goals. The programmes in which I and many widow organisations around the world are involved seek to provide skills training to make widows economically self-sufficient. We try to be as effective as possible with the funds at our disposal. While these programmes do not solve every problem that widows face, they are major stepping stones on their roads to recovery.

How will the Minister increase awareness of International Widows Day? Will the UK Government or DfID organise events like the one in Kenya this year? Will DfID consider setting up a Select Committee on widows? Will the UK Government request the United Nations to set up a special rapporteur for widows? Will DfID consider earmarking funds to help widows in developing countries?

Noble Lords, I welcome—on behalf of us all, I am sure—the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, whose deep and enduring love and filial respect for his widowed mother has resulted in his caring for thousands of widows in the latter part of her life and hundreds of thousands of widows following her death. I salute him as a truly noble character with a record of magnificent achievement. I came to know the Loomba Foundation through my own work for widows with the AMAR foundation, which I chair. We have worked together for a little while now. I am so grateful to the noble Lord.

There are over 40 million widows in India, in a population of 1 billion. Widows in Iraq, where I and my AMAR colleagues work, now number 2 million in a population of fewer than 35 million citizens and refugees. Orphans in Iraq number around 5 million. War brings widows and makes children orphans. As Macduff remarked in “Macbeth” as he was approaching the final battle:

“Each new morn

New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows

Strike heaven on the face”.

The vulnerability and dependence that widows fear is well expressed by the Countess in “All’s Well That Ends Well” as her son goes off to war:

“In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband”.

I think that is why the seventh of the acts of mercy states:

“Comfort the fatherless and the widow”.

That is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, does.

What are the key requirements he and others have identified for assisting widows and orphans? One, of course, is the law, which fits us very well in this Chamber. I was invited by the US Department of State to go and discuss the Magna Carta. I was the sixth speaker of seven. The remaining speakers were from the USA, and were very eminent and able people. I was invited to talk about the rights of women in the Magna Carta and had a lot of trouble with that. The rights of women are contained in articles 7 and 8 and are entirely about how to stop the King grabbing widows’ inheritances so that the barons could marry them and have the inheritances themselves. It was a tough hurdle. Of course, it reminds one that inheritance for women, particularly widows, is very difficult indeed.

Then there is the question of family health. Of all health service users globally, 80% are women. How do widows and their families get access to that, or to literacy and numeracy education—at least for the children if not the widows—without the funding?

Widows need money: they are not allowed to inherit and cannot work. Here I draw noble Lords’ attention to the great benefits of huge companies practising corporate social responsibility. For example, I worked with BP in Iraq. Corporate social responsibility there is the most amazing thing.

There is the recovery of any family to consider, which matters so deeply to widows and orphans. Bodies—even in mass graves—and knowing what happened are critical after losing family. I am working with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on its ancestry programme, which it offers to help people in refugee camps and displaced people, particularly the Yazidis. We hope to build up their ancestries again, even those that are lost. It is better to know what the pattern of your family has been.

It is hard to empower widows and orphans. Yes, we can give love and care in the context of value, but we need to value them as citizens and people to be listened to, respected and involved. I therefore suggest that our key topic is how to empower. The first thing must surely be identity in law and in the real population. How do we give the IDPs and the below-the-line population, for example, who might not officially exist at all, an identity and legal persona? In Turkey, together with Mrs Özal, the widow of the great President Özal, I formed the Daisy charity for people just below the line, whose marriages were not recognised by the state. They were purely Muslim marriages and divorces. That meant the children did not exist as people at all. They therefore could not get help or education. Their plight was bad indeed.

The right to vote, the right to stand for election and the right to run for office: all these rights to be a person with full identity in your society are crucial and give you the right to help and education. I and other noble Lords and noble Baronesses work on the right to physical integrity—in other words, the right not to be raped. One of the great difficulties when you are a widow is the right not to have to go on to the streets to save your life and feed your babies. All these rights should be enshrined in the law of the land, even if it is only by the ratification of the relevant UN conventions. This is what government is for. This is exactly what our Government strive to do and what I urge them to focus on even more—the rights to identity through all these opportunities.

Finally, there are the acts of mercy: comfort the fatherless and the widow. Most wonderfully, I had experience of that this week with BBC South West, with Jon Kay, Andy Alcroft, Kirsty Gardner and Alex Littlewood. They recovered the mother of a young man, to whom I was originally in loco parentis—I was his foster mother—after 30 years. If that can be done by private initiative, by the BBC, what more could we do to bring families together?

My Lords, I am pleased to participate in this debate on widows, intended to mark International Widows Day. The term “widow” has different meanings in different cultures. Broadly, there is a sharp divide between the modern world and the pre-modern world. In the modern world, a widow is simply a woman who has lost her husband—full stop. Nothing changes about her status. She can continue to do the things she used to be able to do. There are no restrictions on what she may or may not do.

In pre-modern society the situation is very different. A widow is not somebody who has merely lost her husband; she has also lost her social status. It is social death. She may not wear colourful clothes, visit a religious temple or eat certain kinds of food. She must be ghettoised and isolated from certain functions. In other words, being a widow in a pre-modern society is a social identity, scripted very heavily by society. The first thing that therefore must be done if we are to do anything about widows in pre-modern societies is to change this notion of widowhood as a status and turn it into a condition of life. It is not one that has to bear the burden of duties and obligations; it is simply a condition of life that one has lost one’s husband.

To deal with the problems of widows in developing countries, the first question is how we deal with the stigma—the violence and isolation the woman suffers. Here, one of the most important things one has to do is think in terms of women’s education so that they begin to think of their own dignity and pride, to demand certain kinds of rights and do not allow them to be taken away. It is also a function when you are fighting a cultural construct—a whole culture bears down on a woman. How do you fight a culture? You transform it. As my noble friend Lord Bragg will bear out, you do that by telling stories, not only about the widow’s suffering but about her talents and the kind of things she can do, so that one begins to see the widow not merely as an object of pity and suffering, but as somebody who has her own hopes and ambitions, and can do the sort of things other women can do.

This is the first thing any Government intending to improve the condition of widows should do. Another is tonsure that widows and women in general have equal rights, not only to property but to custody of their children. If they do not, widowhood becomes an occasion when somebody who has a claim on a family property is quietly removed and the property goes to others. The second thing is therefore to insist on equality of rights and of treatment in general.

Thirdly, one should not merely give handouts—that is not the way to do things. Give her employment, because employment is a capacity-building activity. It gives her pride and dignity. It enables her to build up a network of social contacts, and to go out and meet people and share her joys and sorrows. The most important thing, therefore, is to give her employment. This capacity-building activity is far more important than handing out so many pounds or rupees.

Fourthly, one has to help widows secure employment with a kind of preferential treatment in jobs and higher education. It happens in India and in other countries. I do not see why it cannot be generalised. A widow applying for a job ought to be able to get an extra point, just as the Americans do when an applicant is black. If widowhood is taken as a factor in deciding whether someone gets a job—likewise if a woman, after having become a widow, wants to go to university or college—she might be given preferential entry. That makes this task much easier.

Finally, in any society concerned to improve the condition of women, there has to be a state agency—a government agency that takes full responsibility for the condition of women and carries out a kind of “widow impact analysis” to see how government policies and actions impact on a widow. According to UN Women, there are 285 million widows in the world today. Half a million are to be found in Afghanistan. According to the latest report, which came out in India only two days ago, there are 56 million widows in India—7.4% of the population. Out of 285 million widows in the world, 150 million live in deep poverty, and 40% of the 187 countries surveyed do not grant women equal rights. We are talking not about isolated pockets of poverty, but about systemic groups of millions of human beings in acute poverty and suffering. That is the problem we ought to be tackling.

My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate. I very much appreciate his work supporting widows through his charity, the Loomba Foundation.

A widow from any culture, religion or part of the world will see the loss of her partner as the biggest shock and emotional and mental trauma, leaving her with feelings of loneliness and insecurity. In many parts of the world, the loss of a husband makes a woman more vulnerable socially and economically, particularly in cultures where women are not allowed to gain employment or remarry. Hence, it becomes incumbent on Governments to have systems in place to support the widows. Sadly, there is hardly any support available for widows in developing countries, although some countries may have policies on paper.

As we all know, the biggest flocks of widows emerge during wars and in areas of conflict, where the men are more likely to be killed in large numbers, leaving the women to deal with the aftermath. In recent European history, we saw the Balkans conflict, in which men were killed in large numbers. I visited Bosnia a few years ago, and the cemetery of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 men are buried. Their bodies had been found in mass graves by the United Nations, many years after their deaths. Some of those held responsible, including General Mladic and Dr Karadzic, were tried in the International Criminal Court, and are serving long sentences. During my visit to Srebrenica I met the mothers of those victims. I cannot describe the level of their grief, sorrow and anger. However, one thing that they were content with was that at least some of them had found the remains of their loved ones, and some of those responsible for the atrocities had been brought to justice.

I can draw a parallel with the Srebrenica massacre, one in which tens of thousands of women are still searching for their husbands and looking for justice: it is happening in Kashmir. Over the last three decades, tens of thousands of people, mostly men, have been killed. Many of them are reported to have been picked up from their own homes, or from the streets, by the Indian security forces. Some of them have been released. The bodies of many were found by the roadsides and tens of thousands are still missing. Wives of those missing men in Kashmir, known as “half widows”, have been searching for their husbands in police stations, detention centres and prisons all over India, without any success.

I am drawing a parallel between Kashmir and Srebrenica because thousands of mass graves have been identified in Kashmir which need to be investigated, to find out the identities of those buried there. According to the Amnesty International report of May 2008:

“Amnesty International urges the Government of India to launch urgent investigations into hundreds of unidentified graves discovered since 2006 in Jammu and Kashmir. The investigation must be independent, impartial and follow international standards. The grave sites are believed to contain the remains of victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses”.

In its report of 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights wanted,

“to consider establishing a Commission of Inquiry to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir… Alleged sites of mass graves in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region should be investigated”.

However, the Indian Government have refused these investigations any access.

Human Rights Watch, in its report on 14 June 2018, said:

“The Indian government should immediately act on the recommendations in the first-ever report by the United Nations on human rights in Kashmir”.

Despite these calls from the international bodies, the Indian Government refuse to give access to the United Nations for an independent investigation into these mass graves.

Can I ask the Minister a specific question? If she is unable to answer it now, I am willing to receive a written reply from her later. Will the British Government help the United Nations get access to investigate these human rights abuses, including the mass graves in Kashmir?

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for bringing forward this debate today, to highlight the important issue of widows in developing countries and to mark International Widows Day this year.

I pay tribute to a friend and colleague, Margaret Owen of Widows for Peace through Democracy, who, through many years of determined work and tireless campaigning, got this issue on to the international agenda. As we have already heard, in most developing countries a strong culture of patriarchy prevails, making it very difficult for women on their own. Widows suffer from multiple discrimination, and are too often victimised and abused. While women are often the poorest in a society, widows are the poorest of the poor, and widowhood is one of the most neglected of all the human rights and gender issues. This hardship can affect future generations as family stability is destroyed. Through resulting poverty, widowhood is a driver for children to be taken out of school and girls to be married at a very early age, thus perpetuating a life of underachievement and a lack of empowerment for the next generation. In these countries there is no mechanism for the voices of widows to be heard, or recognition of their struggles as sole parents and breadwinners.

Here in the UK we tend to think of widows as being older, but all the chaos and turmoil of armed conflicts, civil wars, revolutions and natural disasters of recent years has created millions of widows and wives of the disappeared, who become the most vulnerable in their societies. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, I have visited Srebrenica and walked with the widows in the graveyard. It was absolutely unforgettable; their pain was palpable. The number of widows in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Congo has soared. The widows in these countries are often forced to beg—burka-clad widows on the roads in Afghanistan, or destitute widows in Congo trying to scratch a living, pushed to the side of society, remaining voiceless and invisible.

In some cultures, women cannot own property, land, bank accounts or even a job. How are widows meant to fare then? In some developing countries, where good national laws are introduced to tackle these injustices, the laws are not accessible to many as local justice prevails at the grassroots. So often, in spite of constitutional guarantees of equality, women are deprived of their legal rights to inheritance, land and property, and turned out of their homes because law reforms are not implemented. In some cases widows become victims of forced marriage, made to marry relatives of their deceased husbands.

There are no accurate statistics but, in 2017, UN Women estimated that there were 285 million widows globally. Lack of data, especially in war-torn countries, is a huge obstacle to influencing Governments to address the issue of widowhood and ensure that they receive adequate support. To help focus on this important gendered issue, perhaps we should encourage the creation of a UN special rapporteur on widowhood, which might bring adequate focus to bear. In the UK, we could consider that our next national action plan on UNSCR 1325 might include issues of widowhood in the targets and indicators.

Conflict, as we have already heard, creates thousands of “disappeared” men and, thus, half-widows. Men go off to fight; some just never return and there is no information about what happened to them or their whereabouts. Wives may wait many years in limbo without adequate support and never know whether their partners are dead or alive. I hope the House will forgive me if I speak from personal experience. My own mother was such a widow here in World War II. At the age of 22, she received a telegram saying that her pilot husband was missing, presumed dead, and she waited 10 years for him to return before giving up hope. It was always something that remained unsolved in her life, until about 15 years ago when she discovered what had happened by somehow managing to get hold of the Luftwaffe records of the pilot who had shot him down out at sea. Even the British Government never helped to find out what had happened to the missing after World War II.

On International Widows Day, we should not forget the situation in the UK where it is estimated that 500 women a day become widows, the majority by the age of 85. Here in the UK, where we have no culture of respect for the elderly, many of these women suffer from traditional discrimination and poverty. Many do not have good pensions; in rural communities, this can lead to widows becoming even more isolated and depressed when they are no longer able to drive, especially where rural bus services have been slashed.

We should not forget the widows of our brave military killed in action. There are still widows alive from World War II, and the recent actions, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, have created a significant number of widows. Do we have any idea how they fare and whether they feel adequately looked after? Could some study be carried out in the UK to look at the plight of widows here too?

In conclusion, widowhood is a much ignored issue both in the UK and in developing countries. However, it is more than just a gender issue; it affects all of society and its future since widows’ marginalisation and poverty affects the lives of their children. Will the UK consider asking the UN to appoint a special rapporteur on widowhood as a means of lifting the blanket of silence and invisibility from this very important gender and human rights issue?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on securing this debate to mark International Widows Day this year, and on the work of his foundation promoting the cause of widows all around the world, especially in developing nations. As we have heard, the number of widows is quite staggering, and it is increasing sadly, largely due to conflict. The UN estimates that there are 285 million widowed women, of whom about a third live in deep poverty. The Loomba Foundation estimates that 585 million children are dependent on widows.

I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, in paying tribute to the work of Margaret Owen, the brilliant campaigner, through her charity Widows for Peace through Democracy, and also pay tribute to HelpAge International for its development work on behalf of older people, including many widows.

In my brief remarks, I will focus on older and half-widows. I was very moved to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, talking about the terrible situation in Kashmir. Other speakers have said that we should dispel the myth that widows are always older women. Many are of course very young indeed, though the problems faced by far too many—especially after war or any form of conflict—are very similar regardless of age.

Ongoing conflicts around the world cause widows to be deprived, as we have heard, of even their most basic rights to health, education and dignity. Even though they are the most affected by conflict, in almost all situations they still have no role in peacebuilding. They need to be represented at all peace tables. One of our roles is to work to ensure that this happens. Can the Minister reassure us that a huge effort is being made to ensure this is the case?

Widowhood should be addressed by the Government as an urgent human rights issue. The reason is simple: widowhood affects all of society, since unsupported widows become a root cause of poverty across the generations, increasing the inequalities that fuel instability and conflict. A widow whose life is without hope will have children whose lives are likely to be the same, or even worse. As the UN has found, widows’ lack of inheritance rights might lead to the loss of their home as well as increased stigma and isolation within their community. Widows often have reduced legal rights as well, especially over property: the UN estimates that 40% of nations do not treat men and women equally. We know that widows can fall victim to detrimental cultural practices, extending to forcible remarriage, rape and allegations of witchcraft.

More recently, WPD has been campaigning on the neglected plight of the uncounted millions of half-widows—the wives of the forcibly disappeared or missing, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, told us. The legal status of these women, mainly in conflict-afflicted countries, is ambiguous and they have no legal protection or rights, for example to inheritance, land, or pensions. Very often, they cannot remarry. WPD estimates that in Colombia alone there are 86,000 missing men, while in Sri Lanka there are 40,000. In other fragile and conflict-afflicted states, there are many more and their half-widows encounter insurmountable obstacles in attempting to get the information from the authorities to which they are entitled. They are unable to rebuild their lives or even to grieve properly. I hope the Minister can assure me that the work which the Government have been doing with NGOs, the UN and the World Bank to improve the statistical information available on widows includes all that we can collect on half-widows.

It is right for this House, as we did last year on 28 June, to mark International Widows Day. I add my voice to this debate as a recently widowed woman.

My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for this debate on a topic on which he knows so much and has done so much good work. I know that his particular interest is widows in developing countries, but the inclusion of International Widows Day gives me an opportunity to speak on widows closer to home. I offer my sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. My late husband was an RAF officer for 30 years and I am a vice-president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain; the wonderful noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is its much-loved president.

Widows in developing countries face challenges which we hope that our widows no longer do, but our widows have not always been treated with compassion and care. I first came face to face with widowhood nearly 50 years ago in RAF Germany with my husband, where a good friend’s husband ploughed into the airfield while practising for a display for the families’ day that weekend. Her children were four and a few months old. The station commander and his wife duly appeared on her doorstep to break the news, closely followed by the information that, without a serving officer in the house, she would need to move out as soon as possible, since she was no longer entitled to live in a married quarter. The problem was that she had nowhere to go; nor did she have any money, as he had not served quite long enough to have earned a pension. Her life was really tough. These days, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund often steps in to help with housing, but not then. She got help from the fund for her children’s education at an RAF school, and was always touched that it sent presents which she could not afford for birthdays and Christmas.

These days, things have greatly improved in the military. The newly bereaved have an effects officer allocated to cope with the practicalities and the War Widows Association uses its skill as a pressure group to improve the conditions of widows and their dependants in Great Britain. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, it is currently conducting a survey of widows to gather experiences and stories, which it hopes will help to inform people about the work. Its work encompasses those who have suffered bereavement as a result of World War II and all conflicts since then, including Iraq and Afghanistan. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, many of them are actually very young. Its campaigns have improved the conditions of war widows and war widowers, including ending the situation where widows lost their meagre pensions if they found happiness with someone else. There are regional organisers who offer friendship and support. They organise social events and telephone calls to those who can no longer get to events, because loneliness can feature large in widows’ lives.

Remembrance is very important. We have our own Cenotaph service on the Saturday before the national Remembrance Day. At one stage, war widows were not allowed to march on the Sunday; these days they are, and young and old can be seen stepping out proudly with the Sunday parade, but we still value the Saturday ceremony too. Hearing their experiences can be really humbling, while making one quite angry at the way in which widows can be left to fend for themselves without support or money. To hear of mothers who struggle to return from overseas and find work while caring for small children, or to hear of their efforts in making ends meet with resourcefulness and courage, all the while coping with grief and the loss of a life partner, really makes you stop and count blessings. As I have discovered—to my cost—there is a great camaraderie of widows, which I trust is true in other countries too.

It has taken us a while to support the widows of men serving our country, but even they can be better off than civilian widows, who often have nowhere to turn. When I worked for the citizens advice bureau, I well remember the distraught people with no idea how to arrange a funeral, sort finances or generally cope with life without a partner. The CAB could offer practical advice and point to counsellors or often churchmen, because religious people can be rather wonderful at times of death.

As we have heard, in developing countries there is often a stigma in being a widow, to add to all the practical and emotional problems of losing a breadwinner and partner. But there can be a stigma here too: old friends tend to avoid those bereaved, lest they cause upset. Quite often on social occasions, people do not particularly relish having an odd one out. In some countries, widows lack legal rights, cannot inherit and experience violence and ostracism, as we have heard powerfully from the noble Lords, Lord Loomba and Lord Parekh, and others. Losing a husband can mean losing the wherewithal for life, love and respect, but we hope not here.

What actions have the Government taken since the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, last year to support and empower widows? Has the violence against women and girls help desk been able to intervene to help widows? As we try to treat our widows with more compassion and support, has the Minister suggestions on how we can reach out to those in other countries whose suffering is more acute than the grief and sorrow which are part of the lot of any widow?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate. He has been a long-standing and effective champion for all widows.

In most poor and developing countries, widows are found to be worse off than widowers. It is very worrying that some 585 million children are thought to be dependent on widowed mothers, and sometimes grandmothers. Your Lordships will understand that such children are less likely to be in school or to be able to complete their education. This arises because they have often to work to support their mother or grandmother.

I was moved to join in this debate out of concern for widows in war-ravaged countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Iraq—but Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey and Palestine also spring to mind, as they are the countries that I happen to know best. Of course, other countries in Africa and central America have suffered genocide or prolonged civil war. Most widows have needs for care, retraining and empowerment. Do our aid programmes and those of other major donors have special provision for widows? A number of previous speakers asked for a UN special rapporteur for widowhood. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government’s attitude and policy are on that.

Widows for Peace through Democracy has been mentioned. It has provided a worldwide voice for widows ever since the Beijing conference of 1995. It is, however, entirely dependent on voluntary donations. Surely there should be some official funding for the advocates of widows, whose worldwide number has been put at some 285 million by the United Nations.

Mention has been made also of half-widows: that is, people whose status is quite uncertain, such as the former wives of men who have been forcibly disappeared —I give the example of those who have disappeared in the war on drugs in the Philippines. There are others whose husbands have simply gone missing for a whole range of reasons. Widows and half-widows suffer acutely from poverty. This is bound to affect their children, as I mentioned in relation to schooling, and others have mentioned in relation to forced marriage, which we all know to be most undesirable.

The ancient practice of suttee, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, has long been abolished. We live nevertheless in a difficult world. There is still much misogyny. Extreme fundamentalists abound, of all kinds and in many religions. They are the enemies of peace, harmony and co-operation.

We can see that widowhood is a subject that crosses many traditional boundaries. That is why we need a special rapporteur and special programmes of training and empowerment. Widows can be seen as victims, but they also have huge potential, along with all the feminine half of existing humanity. I therefore look forward to a very positive reply from the Minister.

My Lords, I add my tribute and thanks to my noble friend Lord Loomba for his outstanding service in making a difference to the lives of widows. Over many years, he has campaigned for the rights of widows around the world. It is thanks to the Loomba Foundation’s relentless dedication that we have International Widows Day on 23 June. Alongside my colleagues, I also remember the relentless efforts of Margaret Owen, who was a true champion and a friend.

According to a 2018 report from the Office for National Statistics, 6.6% of the population of England and Wales are widows, the majority being female and over the age of 65. The UK is considered to have made substantial progress on the rights of women, but we cannot take comfort that many of those advances have eradicated the endemic inequalities which persist in many sections of our society, including widows, who often experience sudden social ostracisation, lack of financial standing and legal discrimination. A number of women I have spoken to say that they have experienced isolation and had no idea about the services available to them on becoming a widow in respect of housing, employment and financial and legal support.

The legal, social and economic obstacles that widowed women face are prevalent not just in the UK but globally, as reported by the Loomba Foundation. The treatment of widows continues to be gendered and hostile, forcing widowed women into a state of invisibility. It is the unpalatable truth that over many decades, we have engaged in war and division internationally, by partaking in one conflict or another. As a result, millions have experienced displacement and widowhood. Equally, I would like to draw the House’s attention to our international efforts in supporting women in the aftermath of wars and conflict. However, humanitarian crises are all too prevalent, as are the numbers of women facing unprecedented hardship, particularly when they have lost their partners and family members.

During the reconstruction phase in a country, it is incumbent on us to show equal conviction in addressing the needs of women-headed families and the widows and children who are suffering as a direct result of conflict and wars, in which we are often a partner. Whether in Iraq, which has been mentioned, or Syria, or Palestine, widows are the end result of these interventions. Therefore, for the sake of both our national credibility and our proclaimed moral responsibility, we must put equal, if not greater force, into rebuilding communities as we do into the wars that destroy these countries.

Personally, I have had the honour of speaking to a number of Bangladeshi women who were raped by the then Pakistani army in 1971, and who were subsequently widowed. Although these events happened more than 40 years ago, the suffering of many of these women did not end until they faced death. For thousands of them, justice never came. I am deeply saddened to hear from noble Lords’ contributions today that many hundreds of thousands of women who have experienced rape and torture in wars since then are still waiting for justice and reparation.

We have an incredible passion for international development and are working across the globe. As a woman, I do not wish to see the international community turn a blind eye to Yazidi or Kurdish women, or the women of Palestine, Kashmir, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq or Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are crying out for the justice and support they deserve. Noble Lords are acutely aware that many widows have young children who are dependent on them. Indeed, the children themselves have often witnessed or been subjected to rape, torture and violence.

As has been said, during the 2018 debate, the then Minister said that 9.8 million women and girls had received humanitarian assistance. So I ask the Minister: do we keep statistics on where widowed women fit into the humanitarian framework? I also add my own personal call for a UN rapporteur for widows.

It would be helpful to have some understanding of the humanitarian efforts that Britain makes and whether staff are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed for dealing with the issues of widows, particularly in the aftermath of conflict and war. Debates aside, what will Her Majesty’s Government do to assess and evaluate our current policies and services, to see whether they stand up to scrutiny in ensuring the safety, security and economic dignity of widows both in the UK and globally?

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate. It is because of his commitment that we have 23 June as International Widows Day, decided by the UN General Assembly in 2010. I would also like to pay tribute to Margaret Owen, who has done so much work, and add my own condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her loss.

International Widows Day is a call to action to restore widows’ human rights and, through education and real empowerment, help alleviate the poverty and discrimination into which widowhood can plunge them. As the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted, women whose husbands die often face extensive discrimination and injustice. The consequential social and economic exclusion can lead to poverty for them and their children. I speak from personal experience, as my mother was widowed with four young children. We lived in a tied house, so she lost not only her husband but her home. She had to find work and a new house for us to live in, in very difficult circumstances. This has influenced my views about women’s rights and empowerment.

I thank the Loomba Foundation for its World Widows Report, which ensures that we are better placed to understand the full scale of the problems faced by women who become widows. There are more than 250 million widows globally and, as we have heard in this debate, the number has grown by 9% since 2010, partly because of conflicts and disease. The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights.

Successive UK Governments of different political persuasions have championed women’s rights internationally, supporting issues including girls’ education, preventing sexual violence in conflict, and family planning. I pay tribute to this Government’s role in keeping this issue centre stage internationally.

The Minister highlighted many of the actions taken by the Government in Monday’s debate on the Vancouver Women Deliver conference. I shall not go over the areas we covered then, but I want to stress the importance of the forthcoming PSVI conference in November and the need to ensure that we not only commit more resources ourselves but that we ensure that other Governments commit to a similar level of support to prevent sexual violence. I hope the Minister will confirm that there will be time dedicated at the conference to the issue of the violence that widows often face.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, mentioned that widowhood does not affect just older people; but older women are more likely to be widowed. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how DfID and the Government are responding to the specific needs and rights of older women in their work on widows. How are the Government ensuring that the paid and unpaid work and care that older widows are doing is recognised and supported, as part of their commitment to SDG 8 on decent work and leaving no one behind?

On health, according to research by the World Bank, widowed women are far more likely to live with HIV. Coupled with this is the fact that widowed women are often isolated, meaning that much-needed healthcare can be inaccessible. What steps are the Government taking to contribute to the global fight against HIV, since the issue disproportionately impacts widows?

We talked about empowerment in this debate. Only 0.1% of the total aid from OECD donors is committed to women’s organisations, and only 0.02% to women’s organisations based in developing countries. Given the vital role of women’s groups in promoting the rights of widows and in empowering women generally, what steps is the Minister’s department taking to ensure that we not only increase support but increase funding for these vital organisations that support widows?

My Lords, I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for tabling this important debate shortly in advance of International Widows Day. It is so important to shine a spotlight on what has for too long been a neglected issue, and I pay tribute to his long record of work in this area, including the great achievement of getting a UN-ratified day to mark its importance. It is challenging to get accurate information, as widows are too often invisible, but the UN estimates that there are a quarter of a billion widows around the world, with more than half living in poverty. As we have heard, many widows face profound hardship and abuse simply because they have lost their husbands, but when given a chance widows can, of course, be powerful agents of change, prosperity and peace.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, set out powerfully the case for doing more for widows across the world. He gave us some welcome news of positive action being taken internationally to mark International Widows Day. My noble friend Lady Nicholson explained the myriad issues widows face and the importance of empowering them, ensuring that we recognise and promote their rights in everything we do. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, highlighted the importance of addressing the stigma that widows can face. I agree with him that one of the very best ways we can do this is through education—for women, of course, but also for men and for society in general.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, spoke of the difficulties that widows can face when searching for their husbands, not knowing whether they are dead or alive, as well as having to deal with the issues that all widows face. My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke of the perpetuation of underachievement and the lack of economic empowerment that widows can face, along with their sons and daughters—and their sons and daughters, for generations—if they do not receive the correct level of support in time. I absolutely agree with her that we need to do more to help widows access the legal rights to which they are entitled.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, spoke of the importance of involving women in peace talks. Conflict and instability affect women and girls differently from men and boys and result in them having different needs and priorities. We are committed to placing women and girls at the centre of efforts to prevent and resolve conflict. That includes tackling women’s and girls’ different needs and making sure they participate fully to ensure lasting stability. We are currently focusing our efforts on promoting women’s meaningful inclusion in three distinct peace processes—in Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, highlighted how forces widows and their families in the UK still face issues and can be left to fend for themselves, although it was very good to hear of the improvements she has seen. With many of the issues we face in international development, we still have more work to do in the UK. My noble friend Lady Hodgson asked for a UK study more fully to understand the situation here. The Government Equalities Office is currently working on a new strategy on women’s economic empowerment that will set out the Government’s ambition to support women across their diverse life courses and I will certainly talk to it after the debate about addressing widows in that.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke of the importance of training in empowering widows. He mentioned Widows for Peace through Democracy. I will join many noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of Margaret Owen. We work closely with that organisation, alongside other key NGOs in this area—Widows’ Rights International, the Global Fund for Widows and of course the Loomba Foundation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is right to say that we have made good strides on women’s rights and women’s empowerment in general, but there are still too many marginalised groups and too many people left behind, including widows. She mentioned female-headed households. It is sometimes difficult to focus our programme funding on programmes with widows. One of the best ways we find to do that is to focus funding on female-headed households, which of course is likely to include many widows. We work with key implementing partners, such as the World Food Programme and the UN Relief and Works Agency to really target female-headed households as well as other vulnerable groups. Our humanitarian programming in the OPTs, which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned, includes the delivery of hygiene kits, and it uses female-headed households as one of the key selection criteria. In Syria, our NGO partners target female-headed households as well, with protection and resilience assistance.

Far too often in the past, work on widows has been considered a niche issue. We really want to challenge that assumption, and supporting widows and female-headed households helps achieve our global goals and addresses the multiple forms of discrimination that they can face. If we want to achieve the global goals, end poverty, achieve gender equality and truly ensure that we leave no one behind, we need to focus on this area.

The cruelties faced by some widows which have been highlighted today are truly shocking. Once widowed, women often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of abuse. All that abuse has one key thing in common: it is the product of harmful social norms, symptomatic of a world where women’s value can be poorly regarded. It can be about controlling and limiting women’s rights.

One of the other assumptions is that widows are passive victims. Many noble Lords have highlighted the importance of proper economic empowerment. It is true that widows face incredible hardships, but they are often the backbone of their families and communities. When protected and empowered, they can be powerful agents for change. We must do all we can to make sure that that power and potential are unleashed, rather than seeing widows trapped in a cage of poverty and stigma. We are committed to tackling those harmful social norms and deep-rooted gender inequality. If we are to achieve gender equality—goal 5 of the global goals—we need to empower all women; not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in our national interest and at the heart of tackling all the barriers and discrimination that we see.

Today we mark another important day: the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right to highlight the opportunity we have at the PSVI conference on this. I will be working very closely on it with my noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is hosting it.

I turn now to what we have achieved since the last International Widows Day. To mark the day, we will be highlighting the issues that widows can face and profiling some of our work on specific projects. This is the first time that DfID has properly marked International Widows Day—that is thanks in no small part to the encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, to my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Bates, and his encouragement to me on this issue. I reassure the noble Lord that we will continue to step up our work to shine a spotlight on the vulnerability of widows, including in international forums such as the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN Human Rights Council and of course the G7 and G20. We have seen good progress in the commission on the Status of Women. A couple of years ago widows were mentioned; last year we saw further mention and detail on that, and we will continue to press on that agenda.

We are also doing work through our country programmes. In Ghana, we are providing support to vulnerable women, including elderly widows who have sometimes been banished from their communities into what are essentially witches’ camps. We really encourage women to learn about their rights and ensure that they have access to services. Thankfully, we are seeing some women reintegrated into their communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the importance of proper economic empowerment. We have supported nearly 35,000 widows in urban slums in Bangladesh with grants to start small businesses. That is a good example of capacity building rather than the handouts highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. In June last year we announced a new programme to support 8,500 pre-independence Commonwealth veterans and their widows who are living below the poverty line. Again, as with many things we do, our Commonwealth partners are a key part of our success there. We are also highlighting the small charities challenge fund—in fact, I think this week is Small Charity Week—at DfID to ensure that we properly distribute our international aid to small charities. We are explicitly welcoming applications focused on widows in the new tranche, so I hope to see support for even more work in this area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked about our work on improving statistics. We really need to do more work in that area to know who, where and why people are at risk of being left behind. We are investing in data which can be properly disaggregated on the basis of sex, age, disability status and geography. This will be particularly important for widows, who are too often invisible in our data, as I have said. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, I say that we do not have enough data on it yet. It is a work in progress, but we continue to push on it. We are doing lots of work within our country programmes and internationally to raise the profile of this.

I will turn to some specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, asked whether we can earmark funds for helping widows. I entirely agree that we can do more to ensure that our existing portfolio is reaching widows, although rather than spend targets we welcome ideas on what more we can do to support and empower widows; this debate has certainly helped in that. The noble Lord also suggested setting up a Select Committee; that would be up to Parliament to consider, but I will certainly pass that suggestion on. Many noble Lords talked about the request for a special rapporteur for widows. I am afraid that I cannot give a positive response on the Government’s position on that, but it really deserves proper consideration, which I will undertake. I would be interested to think more about the potential role of what that rapporteur could do and will continue discussions on this.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised the issue of Kashmir. Tackling human rights abuses is a central part of all our work overseas, including working in close partnership with the UN in Kashmir and elsewhere. The importance of that work has been powerfully testified to by the noble Lord.

I hope that I have answered the majority of questions, and if I have missed any I will follow up in writing. Over the last year we have been working to build DfID’s knowledge and evidence base for our work on widows. We have also focused on raising awareness of the deprivation faced by widows through our international influencing strategy on gender equality, and we will continue that important work.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for putting this debate on the agenda yet again and pay tribute to his consistency in his decades of work on this issue; this interesting debate has been a testament to him on that. I also thank all other speakers today for contributing to the debate on such an important issue.

House adjourned at 7.30 pm.