COMMUNITY VOICE: The Epidemic of Widowhood
In many developing countries, a widowed woman faces dire economic and social conditions. Fifty percent of the estimated 100 million widows in the developing world are impoverished, and 10% of widows' children will die before age 5 due to lack of access to resources. Upon the death of a husband, widows are often stripped of their property, given negligible access to the job market, and suffer harsh social stigma. Though these problems have reached epidemic proportions, they are hardly acknowledged by developed nations. Windows for Widows founder Heather Ibrahim-Leathers comments on the epidemic of widowhood and explains what can be done to help.
The economic participation of widows in developing nations is surprisingly low. While approximately 60% of women in the developing world are engaged in some form of paid labor, the statistic drops to 20% for widows. Widows suffer from a lack of empowerment, resources, and economic opportunity. As a result, they constitute a large percentage of the world's poor. Inspired by the life and struggles of my grandmother, who was a struggling widow in Egypt, I founded an organization that works against the emergent epidemic of widowhood.
Widows fall into the poverty gap for several reasons. First and foremost, they lack favorable inheritance rights. In many developing nations, the husband's brothers or sons become the primary beneficiaries of the estate. Often, widows don't even inherit ownership to their own homes or the land they farm. In fact, despite being 52% of the global population and physically farming two thirds of the world's crop, women own less than 1% of the world's land. Even worse, in some countries, the widow actually becomes part of the estate, meaning that she can be forcibly married to her husband's brother. In many cases, even if the law entitles a widow to inheritance, in practice she is denied the assets or forced to surrender them. Given so few rights to assets, widows' low economic engagement is far from surprising.
Widows also receive little governmental support. Often, developing countries do not provide social support to widows in the form of public pensions or social security. And those that do often fail to adjust for inflation or the cost of living. For example, in Egypt, the average widow's pension from the government is approximately $10.00 per month-only enough to purchase three simple street-fare meals.
Even when widows have a marketable skill set, three major factors make finding employment extremely difficult. In developing nations, the overall level of unemployment is often high. As such, limited job availability usually means nepotism is rampant, or individuals who do get hired tend to be severely under-employed. This limits job opportunities for widows. Second, the lack of daycare options leaves widows unable to seek employment because they must care for their children. Third, widows experience high levels of vulnerability in society at large. They report trepidation at leaving the house to commute to work, given their exposure to high risk situations such as rape. Widows seeking to participate in the economy must contend against all these daunting factors.
I was compelled to launch Windows for Widows after the death of my grandmother. Her life was rife with challenges, simple because she was widowed in her mid-30s in a small town in Alexandria, Egypt. Despite having assets awarded to her by her own father, upon his death his brothers forced my grandmother to surrender all that she owned--land, jewelry, and even household appliances--leaving her and her four young children with only a roof above their head and a paltry government pension. They fell into poverty almost overnight.
Her story inspired me to researching widows' rights in developing countries, and in doing so I discovered that it's common for widows in developing countries to face these predicaments. And yet, very little global attention or resources is allocated to helping widows. As a result, I decided to work with my friend Elaine Barsoom to create Windows for Widows and help widows extricate themselves from poverty.
Windows for Widows is attempting to break the vicious cycle of poverty by investing in and empowering widows, as well as other women who are heads of households, by creating economic opportunity. Windows for Widows' programs provide skills-based training programs and by enrolling widows in workfare employment programs. Widows with skills and business acumen progress into a micro-finance program to further promote their businesses. Our programs enable the widows to enter the workforce where no other economic opportunity exists. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that all of our widows achieve financial stability, self-sufficiency, and self-accountability.