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It's time to support our widows

Jun 27, 2011

Millions of widows worldwide live a life of poverty and stigma, struggling to nurture their children. On the first International Day for Widows, Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, first lady of the Republic of Gabon, challenges stereotypes to support these women for overall development.



There are 245 million widows in the world, yet their problems are often ignored. Today, on the first International Widows Day, I hope to break the silence of their suffering in order to support them to play an active role in building their families and their communities.

Widows all over the world are a particularly vulnerable group subject to much prejudice. Allow me to challenge a few stereotypes. When I talk about the world's 245 million widows, I am not talking about elderly women. All across the world, widows are often women in the prime of life, young women who are left as sole carers for their children, alone responsible for their shelter, food, schooling and wellbeing. As the HIV/Aids epidemic and armed conflicts continue to wreak havoc across the world, widows are getting younger and facing tougher challenges. Many of these women face harsh discrimination and social exclusion on account of their marital status, which compounds the discrimination they already face on account of their gender. Positive steps have been taken in some parts of the world to address this situation, but there is still a long way to go.

"Widows are often women in the prime of life, who are left as sole carers for their children"

115 million widows still live in extreme poverty. In many cases, their children have to leave school to go to work to plug the gap in the household income left by their father's death; their daughters, in particular, are therefore often at a high risk of sexual exploitation. Worldwide, more than 500 million children of widows live in hostile environments, and more than 1.5 million of these children die before the age of five. Widows' poverty, depriving their children of aspiration, education and future employment, affects the whole of society. It is a humanitarian crisis.

Today, on International Widows Day, we must ask ourselves what is to be done to tackle this issue.. Supporting widows catalyses a developmental multiplier effect: as women gain knowledge, children learn. As women become employed, economies grow. As women are given equality, nations become stronger, and justice and equity across the board become attainable. It impacts directly on poverty, their children's education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health and on the spread of HIV/Aids – six of the eight millennium development goals.

"As we work to achieve the millennium development goals, we need to initiate a new global dialogue on widows and their children"

Research by the Africa Partnership Forum has shown that had more women been educated and employed, Africa's economies would have doubled in size over the last 30 years. The simple truth is that for every year of schooling a mother has received the likelihood that her child dies as an infant declines by 10%. To support women, then, is to support their children; and to support vulnerable women is to support even more vulnerable children. These statistics reveal the true value of enabling families to support one another. I believe that families are the glue that holds societies together; they create strong foundations on which to build, and they are the structures that help economic growth filter throughout the whole of society. Supporting widows strengthens society's human tissue, keeping families strong even when they are broken by the death of a loved one.

As we work to achieve the millennium development goals, we need to initiate a new global dialogue on widows and their children. Starting this dialogue is the purpose of the conference on the first International Widows Day organised today by UN Women and the republic of Gabon. We seek to build new and innovative partnerships and to share best practice in this field, to fully acknowledge the lynchpin role our world's widows play in addressing many of our shared social challenges. They have a unique contribution to make in unleashing the potential of our youth, empowering them to build a brighter future for us all.

Source : Guardian
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