Wednesday, May 6, 2015

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Widowhood: Africa's Neglected Human Rights Issue

Margaret Owen OBE, Director of Widows for Peace, argues that African governments and international conventions such as CEDAW must do more to help widows.
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Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) work towards raising awareness of the complex issues surrounding widowhood in developing countries and ensure that widows have a voice at peace negotiation tables.

We believe that there can be no real reduction in poverty, no sustainable peace, no justice, no true equality or development in Africa - or elsewhere - until the complex issues and challenges of widowhood are prioritised on national agendas. As a root cause of poverty, widowhood issues are key to achieving all eight Millennium Development Goals and cut across all twelve action areas of the Beijing Platform for Action BPA

Widows’ voices must be heard, their needs addressed and their key roles as sole supporters of families properly acknowledged and supported. Widows are growing in numbers every day due to armed conflict, the AIDS pandemic, violence, harmful traditional practices and natural disasters: as a result there are many child widows as well as young mothers alongside the traditional, widowed grandmother.

There have been a range of international conventions and resolutions relating to women’s rights which have been ratified, as well as the enactment of domestic laws reflecting these international standards. However African governments have been slow to address the status of widows; to protect them from violence, ensure their access to justice and enjoyment of their fundamental human rights.

In many ethnic groups widows’ lives are determined by local interpretations of customary and traditional law, and these tend to be highly discriminatory of widows. In many ethnic groups widows and their daughters suffer intense vilification and are regarded as the “evil eye” bringing bad luck. Furthermore, coercive mourning and burial rites are often not merely degrading but actually life-threatening, such with ritual cleansing (sexual intercourse with designated male relatives), which can spread the AIDS virus and result in unwanted pregnancies. Tanzania and Ghana have added to their penal laws articles criminalising “harmful burial rites”, but few if any prosecutions have taken place and it is unclear who is to define what traditions are harmful and which are neutral or benign.

The gap “between lip and cup” is wide in relation to actual implementation or enforcement of new laws, for example, inheritance and land rights. Articles 21 and 22 of the Annexe on Women’s Rights to the African Charter of People’s Rights prohibits the common custom of “chasing-off” a widow from her husband’s home, and “property-grabbing” from widows. However the International Federation of Women Lawyers report that 80% of their cases in West, Southern and East Africa concern widows’ property disputes with their husband’s relatives. In Darfur, many of the women in refugee camps are widows who are the last to be resettled for they have no rights to land and no one to rebuild their homes in their abandoned war torn villages.

In countries afflicted by conflict, the numbers of widows and wives of the displaced have hugely increased. NGOs estimate that more than 50% of women in eastern Congo are widows. In Rwanda, high numbers of the genocide widows were also rape victims - nearly two decades after the genocide these surviving widows, many infected with the AIDS virus, live in extreme poverty and fear, and with only the most minimal access to adequate health care. Often these widows are rape victims put in internally displaced persons' refugee camps. They require medical services,counselling as well as livelihood support and legal aid. In Zambia and Tanzania, refugee widows from Uganda, Angola and Congo -often of mixed ethnicity parentage and marriage and without settlement visas - struggle to survive through prostitution and live in terror of violence from all sides of the ethnic divides. Widows’ experiences, needs and roles are clearly relevant to the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820.

Widows need to have a voice in peace negotiations when new laws and constitutions are drawn up. Widows for Peace believe we need to see widows’ issues prioritised in the drafts of National Action Plans (NAP) for peace building, in the DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, and Angola. A widow requires considerable courage to challenge the patriarchal system as culture and deep-seated traditions are often stronger than any modern legislation.  Magistrates and village chiefs may be biased infavour of the husband’s family members and a widow’s independent behaviour could provoke physical violence, the loss of her children, charges of witchcraft and even murder.

CEDAW (the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by the majority of African Member States) should be used vigorously by lawyers to promote the status of widows and protect them from discrimination. Under CEDAW, widows should be free to remarry or refuse marriage; to inherit, dispose of property and land; take employment and obtain credit. In addition, state parties are required to use all available means to modify negative social attitudes. Regrettably, even when the Convention has been accommodated in statute law, it is rare for a widow to win her case.  

In February 2010, WPD was invited by CEDAW to Geneva to present its dossier providing evidence of widespread and systematic breaches of the Convention articles in relation to widowhood. WPD is now requesting CEDAW consider making a General Recommendation to UN Member States that they address the status of widows within the terms of the Convention. It is also working with women-focused NGOs in Tanzania on a project to provide evidence of discrimination experienced by Tanzania’s widows which will be submitted to the Committee for them to institute an inquiry.

The 55th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) opens this week, and Widows of Peace along with thousands of women from other NGOs across the world will gather in New York for this meeting of governments. WPD and its partners are asking the UN to:

  • Commission a special report on widowhood in armed conflict
  • Appoint a UN Special Rapporteur on Widowhood
  • Endorse a Resolution on Widowhood requiring governments to address this neglected issue.
  • Support the WPD Model Widows’ Charter

We hope to influence the Commission's conclusions on gender issues regarding education and employment opportunities, which are vital in order for widows to be free of violence and exploitation, house, feed and educate their children, care for other dependents and fully participate in society.

WPD will also be meeting the head of the newly established UN Women department, Michelle Bachelet, to ask that field programmes under this new entity include a component that focuses on widows. We are also asking our NGO partners to write country shadow reports to CEDAW reporting on widowhood discrimination in their countries, and to lobby their governments to endorse the WPD Model Widows Charter and legislate to comply with it.

This Charter and the Dossier on Widowhood Discrimination under CEDAW can be found on the Widows for Peace through Democracy website.

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