Widows' affliction: a hidden global problem

Published: Tuesday, March 26 2013 6:00 p.m. MDT

A widow Ampamma carries garbage on a cart, along with her children in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007.

Mahesh Kumar A, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Nearly 250 million women around the world are widows according to a research from The Loomba Foundation, a non profit group based in the United Kingdom. Forty-six percent of these women, 115 million people, live in crushing poverty.

"Across the world, widows suffer dreadful discrimination and abuse," said Cheri Blare, wife of the former British Prime Minster, in her presentation of Loomba's research to the United Nations. "In too many cases they're pushed to the very margins of society, trapped in poverty and left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation," she told the UN according to a Huffington Post report. "The plight of widows," she added, "is a human rights catastrophe...a hidden humanitarian crisis."

Blair noted that most women are widowed when their "husbands are killed in war, die of diseases including HIV/Aids, or are killed because they work in dangerous conditions which are often the only job options for poor men," according to a report on the event from SOS Children's Villages. She added that widowed women are extremely vulnerable, "some are women wrongly accused of murder or witchcraft, or forced to marry another member of the family, many lose their husband’s money and property and get forced out of their homes and many are raped."

Treatment of widows varies by country.For example, in Ghana, widows from the Ashanti ethnic group are subject to ritual cleansing that may include bathing in cold water, sitting naked on reed mats, ritual scarring, head shaving, and even having sex with a designated individual, according to a study from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.

Widows in Nepal are subject to the deeply ingrained belief that after losing their husbands they become witches imbued with dark powers. Nepalese widows face discrimination ranging from suspicious glances from neighbors to violent beatings and torture, according to a report from the Asia Foundation.

But poor treatment of widows isn't just a problem in the developing world, according to Blair. She noted how The Loomba Foundation report stresses that the persecution of widows and their children is also occurring in more industrialized nations in Europe and Central Asia. She reported that the United States has 13.6 million widows, Indonesia has 9.4 million, Japan has 7.4 million, Russia has 7.1 million, Brazil has 5.6 million and Germany has 5.1 million.

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