In many parts of the world, widows are uniquely vulnerable to poverty. Many, regardless of age, are left without a sole or primary breadwinner, and are forced to earn a living while also caring for children and elderly dependents. Some are even vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation because they’re viewed as being "back on the market" for other men.
Some governments and aid organizations provide financial assistance or skills-based trainings for widows, particularly in times of conflict or disease outbreaks. However, the aid is often given in ways that assume widows are incapable of caring for themselves or making independent decisions. Alternately pitied, isolated and infantilized, widows are treated like children who must be "adopted" and protected by the government, charity organizations, or other men.
For example, in Kenya’s Nyanza province, many women in the Luo community have been widowed due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There, when a man dies, one of his brothers or other male relatives is required to marry the widow and provide for her financially and socially. Women do not inherit property or assets, and the property and children of the deceased man belongs to a caretaker other than his wife (1). A woman has no say in what happens to her, her children or her belongings.
Similarly, in Nepal, many women’s husbands have died because of a decade-long violent conflict and the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Nepali government recently announced a 50,000 Nepali rupee ($641) incentive for men who marry widows (2). Although women’s rights activists were encouraged by the government’s attempt to help widows, they vehemently denounced the incentive as “humiliating” and disempowering to widows. Some worry that men will intentionally seek out and exploit widows for the monetary reward (3).
Widows themselves don’t want to be turned into commodities or have a "price tag" put on them. Lily Thapa, founder of Nepal’s Women for Human Rights-Single Women Group believes that "marriage should be based on love, understanding and commitment” and points out that this incentive “encourages people to marry for money’s sake" (4).
Since most of the world’s women are financially dependent on men, Thapa’s comment raises questions about when, if ever, marriage is not for money’s sake.
Contrary to the contemporary Western ideal of marriage as an agreement based on love, historically and across cultures, marriage has been largely an economic transaction. Philosophers point out that rather than "a relationship of love, friendship, or companionship, marriage [has] functioned primarily as an economic and political unit used to create kinship bonds, control inheritance, and share resources and labor" (5).
People enter into legal commitments to cement relations between families, to keep and protect assets and to fulfill expectations in terms of gender and social roles. It’s no surprise, then, that women have often received the short end of the stick in these arrangements, economically and otherwise. Despite the tacit understanding that women will be "taken care of" as long as they fulfill their social, sexual and care responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers, women themselves frequently have no say in the matter and no guarantees.
Historically in the Western world, legal contracts associated with marriage effectively made women economically dependent, even if they weren’t already. For example, until the late 19th century, the doctrine of coverture in English and U.S. law suspended a wife's legal personality in marriage, "covering" it with that of her husband and removing her rights to own property, make a will, earn her own money, make contracts, or leave her husband, as well as giving her little recourse against physical abuse (6). Unfortunately, single women didn’t fare much better: they were often shunned and ostracized.
Similarly, outside of the Western world, staying unmarried was not an option. In most cases, a marriage agreement took place between two (or more) families, not between individuals. These usually began with an exchange of money, turning women into something to be bought and sold. In some cases, a payment was intended to ease the burden of another family "taking in" a woman; in other cases, ironically, it was meant to protect her.
Many cultures continue to practice dowry and other asset exchanges as part of their marriage rites. Whether these transactions increase or decrease women’s "value" is debatable; what is clear, though, is that they turn women into commodities.
For example, in Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, a groom pays a certain amount of money, jewelry, animals or property--the bride price--to a bride’s family upon their marriage. Some cultures view this as compensation for the family’s loss of the woman’s labor and fertility. Others see it as proof that the groom has enough resources to support the bride. In the present day, bride price is also sometimes thought of as advance alimony in case the marriage dissolves or the husband dies.
Meanwhile, in South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it is the bride’s family that pays dowry--money, goods or property--to a new husband and his family. Women’s rights activists tend to view dowry unfavorably, arguing that women should not have to provide an economic incentive to be considered marriageable or to bring assets with them to offset the "burden" they represent to their new families.
Historically, dowries in South Asia were a woman’s safety net in case her husband died. Also, dowries have helped families make it through difficult economic times and sometimes even insured women against violence: the larger her dowry, the less likely a woman is to be beaten or abused. Dowry has also been used to let parents out of inheritance obligations; for example, if a father has already paid dowry in marriage, he is not required to provide inheritance to his daughter.
Although a dowry can provide a financial starting ground for married couples and protect women against the loss of their husbands, it also implies that women are in need of this help or assistance from their families and have no economic contribution of their own to make.
Women’s ability to survive financially should not be tied up with marriage. A first step is to allow women to choose how, why and if they enter into marriage in the first place.
Once women are married, they need to be on equal footing with their spouses. Married women are more likely than their husbands to work in lower paid, part-time jobs or to give up paid work entirely, especially to meet the demands of child-rearing. Although the structure of legal marriage encourages many wives to become economically dependent on their husbands--for tax benefits, health insurance and income--this ultimately leave women in a weakened position following divorce or a husband’s death. As a result, even those who have enjoyed a comfortable life are likely to end up with a lower standard of living or in poverty.
All women, regardless of their marital status, need access to education, good jobs, and support for domestic duties. Both widows and married women deserve freedom from culturally entrenched marital practices that degrade and commodify them as well as legal protection from their husband’s debts. Although transforming long-held laws, beliefs and practices may be difficult, it is the only way to keep the “price tags” off women and ensure that they have dignity as well as true economic agency.
1. Kathambi Kinoti, “HIV/AIDS and land ownership rights,” Association for Women’s Rights in Development, (February 12, 2008).
2. Mark Tran, “Nepalese proposal to pay men to marry widows sparks fury,” The Guardian, (July 20, 2009).
3. Joanna Jolly, “Nepal widows dismiss marriage incentive,” BBC News, (July 16, 2009).
4. Mark Tran, “Nepalese proposal to pay men to marry widows sparks fury,” The Guardian, (July 20, 2009).
5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Marriage and Domestic Partnership, (August 5, 2009).
6. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Marriage and Domestic Partnership, (August 5, 2009).