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WACUNA: Margaret Owen OBE on the cost of neglecting widowhood

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Margaret Owen OBE spoke on 'Things you never knew about widowhood – the economic costs of ignoring Widow’s issues'.

Margaret is very well known for her work on widows. She is Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD), was Head of the Law and Policy Division at the International Planned Parent Federation and has worked with the Coordinating Committee for the Welfare of Ugandan Asians. She has been a consultant for the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, UNICEF and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and has worked as a consultant on widowhood to the UN Division for the Enhancement of Women.  She is a barrister and international human rights lawyer who focuses on women's rights. In 1996 she wrote the book A World of Widows.

Margaret had only just returned to the UK after the recent meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but generously gave her time to us. She is hard working, determined and passionate. At 83-years-old, her age does not hold her back. However she feels frustrated at the lack of progress at CSW – that the NGOs have minimal input to the programme.

The two papers studied at CSW this year were the Political Declaration (which affirms commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action) and the Working Methods Resolution (which reaffirmed CSW as the principle global policy-making body for gender equality and empowerment of women). The results disappointed and angered the NGOs which focus on women's rights - they did not feel properly consulted, and thought the results were anodyne. Some difficult issues were bypassed, and the facilities for the NGOs' parallel meetings were poor.

The problems of widows are not properly addressed. Depending on the country, these include deprivation of human rights in the justice system, and loss of land or home which badly affects their children. UNICEF focuses on children but not widows, even though the latter can be as young as nine years old. Widows can be considered as chattel and passed on to a husband’s brother, for example, while others suffer torture based on superstition and stoning to death as witches.      

The Sustainable Development Goals should mainstream women’s contributions and mention widows, to reduce poverty and to use the five main mechanisms available:

  1. The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) does mention older women, but not widows. The development of CEVAW has been suggested, to address violence against women including widows, women in conflict or those affected by fundamentalism. We can use CEDAW to alter the attitudes of governments and the public to improve the treatment of widows
  2. BP4A, the Beijing Platform for Action, did not directly address widows’ issues, nor mention them specifically. However, poverty and the need for education are mentioned - points relevant to all women
  3. Disaggregated statistics are needed for numbers and ages of widows and their children
  4. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, along with other resolutions, aims to help women in conflict and indicates that they should be at the peace talks where recovery is planned
  5. Publicity and action for women including widows is needed from UN Women and rapporteurs. The UK global summit in June 2014 drew attention to sexual violence in conflict, but more work is needed to investigate such issues as asylum, internal displacement, refugee camps where rape occurs, and prosecution at the International Criminal Court. 

In the discussion following the talk, many points were raised, such as the effect of UK austerity measures, the need for men to be part of the solution, the need for a special body with authority and procedures to support survivors, international police federations to train women helpers, women to speak on behalf of ignorant women with no resources, no legal defence.  

Margaret was thanked for her great contributions to human rights work and the cause of widows, and for the comprehensive talk. 

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