Outsiders in London


Treatment of Widows

It is estimated that nearly 40% of the world population of women over the age of 60  are single and the majority of these are widows.   In the least developed countries,  almost 50% of such women are widowed:  in war-torn Afghanistan, there are 70,000 widows in Kabul alone;  in Iraq, there are 3 million;  and over half of women in Eastern Congo are widowed.   In countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS, this percentage is even higher.   In many countries, widowhood may be described as ‘social death’.   While in western societies, widowhood is generally associated with older women, in the developing world, where young women (often really children) get married to older men, there are literally thousands of young women left as widows;  ostracised and vulnerable, they are left to fend for themselves and for their children.   It may seem an imposition to some of us that in certain European countries, a widow is expected to wear black for a year after her husband’s death, or in some places, even for the rest of her life, but in many parts of the world widows are driven out of their own homes, with no rights of inheritance whatsoever, and may be forced into near slavery in the household of their deceased husband’s brother, or another male family relative, sometimes even being coerced into sexual relationships too.   Faced with poverty and homelessness, often subjected to violence and hostility from both male and female relatives, such widows still struggle to raise and educate their children.

In own own country, Britain, where widows have much greater opportunity for independence and social mobility than in many other societies, war widows can struggle too, having to live and to raise their children on sometimes less than 40% of the pension their husbands would have received.   In Afghanistan, where the wives of British servicemen may well have been widowed, the great majority of the 35,000 street urchins who roam the cities and beg are the children of widows, just trying to survive.

In Nigeria, society continues to subject new widows to horrific traditional rituals:  a widow is often seen as in some way responsible for her husband’s death;  she is forced to drink the water his corpse has been washed in;  she has to endure many weeks of isolation and dehumanising ritual;  and, particularly if she has no son, she is often driven out of her own home.

In India, the practice of ‘sati’ (where newly-widowed women would throw themselves on to their husband's funeral pyres in an act of self-immolation) is thankfully no longer practised, but widows are considered inauspicious and many soon find that they have lost their incomes and are ostracised in their home villages.   Some are even sent away by their husbands' families and may not inherit property or even the family homes they have lived in.   In Vrindavan, the ‘City of Widows’, approximately 20,000 ‘discarded’ widows have congregated in grief and poverty, where some have lived on the streets for more than 30 years, begging and singing in ashrams in exchange for a bowl of rice and a pittance.  

Of course, there are some exceptions:  in some rare, matrilineal communities, widows are positively encouraged to re-marry and the children from the previous marriage retain their mother’s surname.

Supporting organisations:

Widows for Peace Through Democracy : www.widowsforpeace.org

Army Widows’ Associations UK :  www.armywidows.org.uk

Updated 11th August 2013

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.