#199 Widows for Peace with Margaret Owen OBE

December 29, 2023 FiLiA Episode 199
#199 Widows for Peace with Margaret Owen OBE
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#199 Widows for Peace with Margaret Owen OBE
Dec 29, 2023 Episode 199

In this episode, Margaret Owen OBE founder of Widows for Peace (WPD) highlights the plight of the world’s dark secret of marginalised ‘invisible’ widows: a vast and growing number of women of all ages living in extreme poverty, forgotten, abused and neglected internationally, nationally at grassroots levels.

Lily Thapa, Founder of WHR/SWg (women for human rights single women's group), Nepal
Jacqueline Musugani, Coordinator IFESIDI (women living in disastrous circumstances), East Congo
Lyudmyla Porokhnyak, President of the National Council of Women in Ukraine
Agaw Mabior, Founder, Women's Support Network Organisation in South Sudan
Roseline Orwa, Founder & Director, Rona Foundation, Kenya

You will hear from widows themselves – representatives of widows living in
conflict, in extreme poverty, living with cultures that treat widows as outcasts who
are forced to migrate, forced to take part in abusive and cruel widow rites and
much more. The plight of half-widows – who are they and why we should care.

You will discover that widowhood is the most neglected of all Human rights. The
failure to address marginalised widows of all ages by the international
community: by our Governments, Civil Society Organisations, The International
Criminal Court and at the UN Security Council.

You will learn about the systematic widespread dehumanisation of widows and
their families who have little or no recourse to justice, social protection,
healthcare and education.

Listen and learn that your voice makes a difference: you may think it doesn’t, but it does. Pressure your politicians and ensure they are widow-informed. Use your networks and platforms to offer widows the chance to use their voices, to tell their stories, to receive education and training so that they can be included at all peace tables, decision-making tables, consulted when legislation is written or passed – that it is fully widow-aware and widow-sensitive.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Margaret Owen OBE founder of Widows for Peace (WPD) highlights the plight of the world’s dark secret of marginalised ‘invisible’ widows: a vast and growing number of women of all ages living in extreme poverty, forgotten, abused and neglected internationally, nationally at grassroots levels.

Lily Thapa, Founder of WHR/SWg (women for human rights single women's group), Nepal
Jacqueline Musugani, Coordinator IFESIDI (women living in disastrous circumstances), East Congo
Lyudmyla Porokhnyak, President of the National Council of Women in Ukraine
Agaw Mabior, Founder, Women's Support Network Organisation in South Sudan
Roseline Orwa, Founder & Director, Rona Foundation, Kenya

You will hear from widows themselves – representatives of widows living in
conflict, in extreme poverty, living with cultures that treat widows as outcasts who
are forced to migrate, forced to take part in abusive and cruel widow rites and
much more. The plight of half-widows – who are they and why we should care.

You will discover that widowhood is the most neglected of all Human rights. The
failure to address marginalised widows of all ages by the international
community: by our Governments, Civil Society Organisations, The International
Criminal Court and at the UN Security Council.

You will learn about the systematic widespread dehumanisation of widows and
their families who have little or no recourse to justice, social protection,
healthcare and education.

Listen and learn that your voice makes a difference: you may think it doesn’t, but it does. Pressure your politicians and ensure they are widow-informed. Use your networks and platforms to offer widows the chance to use their voices, to tell their stories, to receive education and training so that they can be included at all peace tables, decision-making tables, consulted when legislation is written or passed – that it is fully widow-aware and widow-sensitive.

Margaret: Never before has the world seen such a huge increase in the numbers of widows of all ages, from child widows, young mothers, elderly grandmothers, due to armed conflicts, civil wars, natural disasters and harmful traditional practices when very young girls are married to much older men. 

And yet, there's very little data. They're not counted, and they're not heard, and they are rarely in decision making, whether it's national, local, or district. This is our big challenge. We've got to hear their voices. 

Widows are the poorest of all poor women, and they're the most abused because of harmful traditional practices, really deeply entrenched patriarchal prejudices, which regard widows, they dehumanise widows, regard them as chapels so that they have no rights, basic rights, choose to marry or not remarry, rights to inheritance, to land, even to custody of their children. And in so many cases, they're either secluded and exploited or excluded and so vulnerable to violence of all kinds from inside their families and from the communities. And also the violence from the international community, the UN and governments, because they are so neglected. 

And you know, why is it such an urgent issue? Because this oppression of widows affects the whole of society and its future. It's a key driver of girls being taken out of school, either into early marriage to a much older man or actually given into the clutches of horrible traffickers.

It's also a key driver of why we have so many young boys now who are unaccompanied child asylum seekers. 

So I say that widowhood is an urgent issue for everyone because it's a root cause of expanding and extending the poverty and inequality, passed down across generations, and it's that inequality, that poverty, that injustice that actually fuels future conflicts and actually frustrates all other efforts to achieve the 17 social development goals.

So, we have to look at new ways. We keep saying drawing attention, but I'm so proud to be introducing my wonderful speakers. And all of you are leading in your own countries that great movement for widows to have a voice. And you've all got such good practice to share. And I wish that in every country where widowhood is a problem, or it will be a problem, they could learn from all of you so that widows have their own organisations and the funding so that they can really, really play their part and be heard in decision making.

Kavita: I am Kavita Pandey, President Chairperson of the WHR [Women for Human Rights] Nepal. Actually, we had a lot of discriminatory law for women, not only women, widows also. Therefore, we had to find out and analyse the many legal document and laws, then after we filed the reading, the Supreme Court and got justice for single women.

Now we have a property rights and other many rights, and we have got widow allowances for all the widows. But we still we have a lot of discriminatory laws, and we want to make that positive [moves] toward the single woman widow. And we have been just doing lobbying to the concerned agency of the government and also other parts of the international community.

Therefore, we would like to request here that, yeah, we have to follow the CEDAW, SDGs [Social Development Goals] and other many, many international mechanisms to provide the legal status for single women as other woman and as a human being also as other men being also. Therefore, we have been doing lobbying. We have been doing advocacy to get a proper and that positive law for us.

Margaret: I'm going to introduce you to my long-time friend and colleague, Lily Thapa, who's the founder in Nepal of Women for Human Rights, a single women's group. Lily was only 29 when her husband was killed, leaving her to bring up alone three small boys. And though she was highly educated, you know, and very well established in the society, she still experienced all the realities of widowhood in Nepal, and was also the victim of appalling harmful traditional practices in mourning and burial rites.

And because of that, in 1994, she began to join up with other young widows and set up this amazing, my very… one of my very best partners in the world, Women for Human Rights, single widows group. She wouldn't even use the word widow in her title because in the vernacular, as in many other countries, the word widow is synonymous with witch, harlot, prostitute, whore.

But what she did for millions of widows all over the world, and the thousands of widows in Nepal. She has given them hope, given them a voice, and given them empowerment, and enabled, all over the world, widows to share best practice. And what she has done in her organisation is some very good practice indeed, that we can all learn from.

So she helped all these widows and she's also helped me. Welcome, Lily. Thank you. 

Lily: I'm Lily Thapa. I'm the founder of Women for Human Rights Nepal, which worked for the rights of the widows from last two decades. In Nepal, we have among 8 percent widows among the 52 percent women population, where a majority of the widows are young in between 25 to 35 years, having 3 to 4 children on average. As per the census, 86 percent of the widows in Nepal are totally illiterate. That's why they are dependent on the family members where they get all kinds of sexually and physically harassed and abused. 

Majority of the widows in Nepal work in the informal sector. That is why during the time of the COVID, they are the one who are worst hit, where they get job and employment opportunity.

As being a sole supporter of their family, their role has to be acknowledged by all, and they should get all kinds of the resources to support their family.

Widows as being a sole supporter of their family, their role has to be acknowledged, and the international community has to incorporate the widowhood in their agenda.

The triple burden the widows have to contend with which are in the form of the stigma associated with the widowhood, makes them a more vulnerable population than all. The State and the international community needs to address the issues of the widowhood in keeping with the form and the spirit of CEDAW and SDGs as mentioned that no-one is left behind.

That's why widows of Nepal and around the world demand justice, love and dignity.

Margaret: So I'm really, really proud to introduce to you my great friend, my beautiful young widow, Jacqueline, who runs IFESIDI, an organisation for women in difficult circumstances. And she comes from Eastern Congo, Kogu, where there are just so many widows.

I heard in the Congo that they say that over 60 percent of the women in the Congo are now widows because all of these terrible conflicts and so many widows who are also victims of rape have been displaced or in refugee camps, and living in such poverty. Jacqueline, over to you.


(Translated from French)


My name is Jacqueline Musugani. I am a coordinator of IFESIDI. If I can translate this into English, IFESIDI is Women’s initiative in difficult situations for sustainable and integrated development. IFESIDI is based in the west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC].

[00:10:12] And this is a country where there are armed groups everywhere. So, from the north to the south, that is to say, half of the country is invaded by around a hundred armed groups, who have been very active for 25 years. Since 1996, this disastrous situation has led to millions of deaths, of rapes and instances of violence against the women and girls, who suffer rapes and violence. And thousands of displaced people are living in very critical and precarious conditions in disastrous and catastrophic situations. Orphans number in the thousands. 

Today we count almost 50% of widows compared to the total population in the east of the DRC. IFESIDI has been working for over 23 years for the promotion of the rights of women and particularly widows.

[00:11:16] We lead advocacy for the recognition of the rights of widows, who need to benefit, without violence, from the inheritance from their late husband, from decent housing, health care and from the education of their fatherless children. 

We are working with 750 widows, we could identify more widows, but we can’t because we’re only able to support 750 of them.


[00:11:46] The widows also need support in learning a trade for their economic empowerment. All these rights should be guaranteed for widows and orphans. IFESID works tirelessly for all of this. 

There is a law that protects victims of rape and violence committed against women and girls, and that has been passed.

[00:12:11] Perpetrators are beginning to be brought to justice, but the implementation of this law suffers from cronyism and bribery. While the particular consideration of the rights of widows and orphans is not yet in effect in the DRC, widows continue to live in the shadow of married women whose husbands are still alive. They are a social category of the forgotten whose rights are not effectively taken into account. 

More recently, at the beginning of April 2023 we met with Margaret Owen, OBE, and Widows for Peace through Democracy who came from London, in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. We were received by the National Minister for Gender, the Family and Children to request the organisation of a regional forum for the rights of widows. But so far the project remains on the back burner so the forum has not been set up. But the project still remains. We will continue to fight with Margaret and everyone who supports widows’ rights so that international widows’ rights forum is organised in the DRC. This is very important given the situation and the wars raging in the DRC.

On behalf of all the widows’ organisations in the world, on behalf of all of the activists who fight for respect for the rights of widows, I thank the UN, through UN Women, which has taken into account the suffering of widows and orphans and worked hard to pass a resolution to respect the rights of widows. To support this resolution and its implementation in each respective country, we would like this UN entity to be able to have the means to organise meetings at an international level in which delegations of widow’s organisations, the different member states of the UN, and beneficiaries as well as actors and stake holders who are committed to rights of widows and fatherless children around the world.

What great structures in the world who have in their specifications the right to review whether widows and widows’ organisations, the rights of widows, could see, at least once every three years, how to organise an international forum in the presence, for example, of all actors. That is to say the representatives of the organisations of the rights of widows, delegations, representations and delegations representing the rights of widows and fatherless children, identified in the different member states of the UN, as well as all actors and stakeholders committed to the promotion of the rights of widows and fatherless children.

All these supporters, all these participants in these events would be able to express out loud the concerns, the pleas, in short the general concerns linked to the rights of widows on any possible occasion of participation in the forum. Promotional precedents, clear proposals, please, clear and concrete proposals would be made to those concerned, accompanied by monitoring and evaluation through focal points chosen from among the representatives of widows’ rights organisations participating in the said forum, who could be kept informed in terms of those pleas.

To achieve this, the UN could help us contact the governments of member countries for this purpose. When a basic practical action is feasible that can be undertaken by an individual. As I have just said, it would be necessary to choose focal points by country, for those who could organise awareness-raising campaigns for widows' rights organisations working at the grassroots, in order to increase the number of pleas to get the government to pass after all one law for the recognition and protection of the rights of widows. This law would protect widows and orphans from all types of massive violations of their rights. 

Finally, a practical and feasible action that can be taken by politicians, policy writers and members of the judiciary to plan and draft a text of law to protect the rights of widows and orphans to be passed to the lower house at the upper house of parliament, up to the presidency of the republic so that the rights of widows are truly recognised and respected. 

I say thank you. It's Jacqueline coordinator of IFESIDDI based in the DRC. Thank you.

Margaret: Thank you so much, Jacqueline. I hope that's really, really good and I hope we can translate it so that everybody will be able to hear it next October and now I'll just, I think now we'll have, who should we have next? Rosaline. 

So, Rosaline, my wonderful Rosaline. Who I first met at LSE when you came to London for the very first time. What a great meeting that was. And you're the first widow's leader I know about who really came out, out in the open and took the blanket of invisibility off the appalling, harmful traditional practices that nobody ever wanted to speak about.

And you, with such courage, such courage. You exposed what was really happening to the world, and I hope the world is listening to you now. Rosaline. 

 [00:18:25] Rosaline: Than you Margaret. My name is Rosaline Orwa, founder and director of the Rona Foundation, that is working with rural widows in western Kenya. And for the first time, we thank FiLiA for giving us this platform as widow representatives, widow leaders from the global south to get our voices included.

And the problem we are dealing with at our organisational levels, besides the fact that we are dealing with HIV perished communities, COVID19 perished communities ‒ COVID was a widow maker. More women came to become widows in COVID19. 

We are also dealing with the burden of orphan care, and more importantly, in my context where I work in western Kenya, we are dealing with the harmful widowed practices, traditions, and the customs that deny women their body autonomy, deny them their dignity, and deny them the choice and voice over their own bodies and their rights.

And with it comes a disinheritance, with it comes discrimination, and with it comes a social stigma.

In the context of where I work, a husband is a layer of protection with whom a woman loses her social status, immediately the moment the husband is declared dead. Then you have to deal with all the elements that come with widowhood, whether they're primary effects or then secondary. Grief is even, is not close to what is being discussed. 

She will be dealing with the people known to her, mostly in-laws, who is inheritor. We are talking about women who largely did not get the opportunity to… Even as we sit here in this webinar, we are the luckiest ones because of education, you can read a document, you can defend your rights, you can speak English. And a number of the widows we serve, 90% of the 8,000 widows my organisation serves can't read and write, so they can't even interpret documents when they're being disinherited. And we are talking about digital platforms inequalities. We are here using the technology now. Most of those widows will not be able to. 

So we come here representing a number of those millions and millions of widows across the globe. ***Number inaudible here***[RL2] widows in Kenya in particular, whose data is unknown. They are not evidenced and there's nothing for us without us. If the data doesn't exist, it means the issue doesn't exist. If harmful widowed practices are not criminalised and outlawed, it means the women are not present even in legislation.

So those are the issues we are dealing with at an organisational level. And luckily what the Rona Foundation is doing, if I look keenly now with a clearer eye, we are talking about dignity and human rights. And sometimes they say, oh, these are traditional African practices. In my opinion, no.

These are structural and systemic inequalities that affect women that are widowed. And they could affect women from Congo, where there is war now; from South Sudan, where there has been war; from Ukraine, where there is war; from Kenya, where there's traditions and the customs that deny women their rights. They could affect women in the Ethiopia where there is conflict now; all over Asia, millions and millions of widowed women who never got the chance and the opportunity we have now to get our voices heard. 

And we have hope in the people listening to us that they'll do something with this information. And that's something we translate laws, legislation will translate into resourcing the widowed. And we'll also talk to recognition of the widow issues at a global level. 

The changes that I am seeing in Kenya, Rona Foundation is 12 years old now. And we've had a lot of advocacy effort through Widows for Peace through Democracy.

And Margaret has been a great pillar. And she has kept on telling us, don't shut up. Keep talking, keep talking, keep talking. And ideally, we have kept talking, and sometimes we are talking to ourselves and still we get stuck.

What I've noticed in Kenya in the last three… five years, especially now we have a new government, in the last government, we advocated very strongly for the establishment of economic empowerment instruments.

We got to widows, economic empowerment instruments, passed and launched by the national government. One at a national government level, which is national. And one at an organisation level, that organisation, and claimed as authorities. The challenge therein is access; the new government has brought in a policy that all those economic instruments have to be accessed through digital platforms. So now we are talking about digital inequalities. 

In my work, we serve about 8,000 widows, clustered in 106 households[RL3] . So we are looking at, do we buy them phones, go to them and educate them and get somebody to help them and a field officer to help them access those facilities? So still access, recognition, services, public service delivery, is still limited to the region […] for increased knowledge, especially amongst community members and duty bearers. 

Lately, I have seen the wife of our deputy president advocating strongly against recognition and legislation of widow issues in our country.

In my own county, my governor, who's a human rights lawyer, has come out very strongly in a number of vocations and has agreed that we are going to enact a widow’s protection policy. And that is a male champion, a legislator standing in the front saying let's promote and advance people's rights. Such did not exist before. So those give me hope. Recognition with other stakeholders, whether they are media influencers, social media influencers, coming up and saying there's something about widows that is not right. We could look at it and we could legislate around it. 

Our ask here, especially to women's movement like FiLiA, is what can they do for us? And we thank you for creating this space to allow us to get our voices out there. We really thank you for creating for us this space and offering us such platforms to increase awareness, help us to also get visibility, and get the widow issues at the global level.

One more thing is collaborative and partnership efforts. Taking joint actions with us, so that we don't remain as widow-led organisation or widow focused organisation. Taking advocacy actions on our own or writing opinion pieces, you could join us as a women's organisation to help us take joint actions. Together we are stronger. 

And lastly, I think it is upon all of us women, women of the world, to call for policy legislation to outlaw harmful traditional widowed practices. Just like they did with female genital mutilation. The only difference is we have our stories. And our stories are the only tool that we have to speak.

In my case, on the fourth day after they buried my husband, they came to sexually harass me. And the only proof I have is because I was there, I was in the room. Despite being the daughter of teachers, they still came to sexually harass me on the fourth day after they buried my husband.

My voice should count for many other widows that did not have the luxury or their father-in-law to defend them like my father-in-law did. So that if we outlaw and criminalise, then we protect women. We are the widows of today, changing it for the widows of the future. 

Margaret: You are absolutely amazing. Fantastic. I love what you've done and the way you actually got the governor in your part of Kenya to actually put it onto the legislative program. This is absolutely wonderful. And I love what you said about joining up. We're joining up with all sorts of other human rights organisations, women's organisations.

So, we're, many, many of us, and not just women, but actually supported by lots of serious men who understand how urgent this issue is with the future of all our communities and all our societies. Thank you so much, Rosaline, wonderful to hear you. 

And now I'm going to ask Lyudmyla from Ukraine, and all our hearts bleed for all of you, because we don't know how many women, not just are widowed, how many of them are now refugees in different countries, many of them are here in the UK. But how many women don't even know where their husbands are? They've become what we call the half widows, haven't they? They're in limbo. They don't know whether their husbands are in mass graves, are they being taken to Russia, are they in prison, where are they? And the terrible impact of that on their children and their families. And so we want to hear from you about what you want all of us to do and what you want the international community to do to help you all. Because the war in your country, alas, is not going to be over soon. 

And although it is terrible what is happening in Ukraine, we've got to understand that it's terrible what is happening for all those women in Russia who've lost their husbands. Everywhere where there is conflict, who bears the brunt of it all? Men and boys are killed. And women are widowed, raped and really suffer with terrible vulnerability to more and more violence. Thank you, Lyudmyla.

Ludmyla: Thank you Margaret, because we met in Geneva, three years ago and you watched a film about widow's villages. But in this time, but now we have another situation, and our situation is not good. But we have hope. Thank you.

I thought about Ukrainian widows, who had different roles in Ukraine in different historical eras. The widows continued the affairs of their husbands during the era of princely rule in Kiev Rus′. For example, Princess Olga ruled in the 10th century AD for 19 years after the death of her husband Prince Igor.  

Widows were the basis of settled towns and villages during the Cossack era, 15th to 16th centuries. Widows have been rebuilding the Ukraine after long wars in which their husband died over the past 100 years.

As a rule, in those days, women gave birth to many children who started working early and helped the family. Technological progress has changed the situation. It became prestigious for the family to give children a good and long-term education and raising children became so expensive that most families today are limited to one or two children.

Also educated working women postponed having children for the sake of a career. Therefore, a modern widow in Ukraine, especially women whose husband died in the war with the Russian aggressors, often remain childless.

This is the first big challenge we have received. Unfortunately, I do not have exact date on the number of such widows, but there are tens of thousands of them. The state has developed a programme to support the families of those killed during the war. Each region additionally has its own programmes.

But widows often face misunderstanding on their situation, delay in financial aid. Public organisations in Ukraine provide free legal support, but having lost her husband, a woman can no longer give birth to a child from him. There are widows who having their husband biological material, became pregnant, and gave birth to a child already after the husband's death, but such units[RL4]

Therefore, we raised the issue before the state about creating a sperm bank of young men, especially military personnel and not only, but such a step would not be effective if we do not convince widows to give birth to children through the mass media and social networks.

Widows of heroes must become heroines and nurture the genetic code of the nation. Of course, this is impossible without the protection and support of the state. The state needs to defend its land and then settle it. But women's organisations need to take care of it now.

I became a widow at the age of 34. My husband was a doctor and died in a road accident during a night call. I had two sons, 11 and 5 years old. And I dreamed of giving birth to a daughter. At that time, there were no modern reproductive technologies which I always regretted very much. I think many widows have the same feelings, wanting to continue their husband's genetic code.

Widows have a lot of oncology and mental breakdowns. Many die. Children are left alone. Widows in Ukraine have a large element of burnout. Widows are required to collect certificates in order to receive financial support. There are no clear instructions on where to take them. In different regions, the region itself decides how much they can give to a widow. It can be a small amount. 

If war widows take children from orphanages and do not want to remarry, state support is needed. The role of non-government organisations is to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable section of the population, including widows. But you can disagree with this.

If a young widow was left alone raising children as their father and mother, i.e. performed a double burden. She is not a victim; she is a leader. Some of the widow of defenders of Ukraine joined the armed forces after the death of their husbands. They are heroines, leaders. 

In Ukraine the organisation Widows of Heroes was created. We even have closed chat rooms to communicate among themselves. But this applies to the capital and large cities. In small towns and villages there are not such organisations. And women's public organisation take care of war widows to a greater or lesser extent, in the same way, they took care of older widows.

Older widows are a natural tradition of Ukraine in which girls often marry older boys and the life expectancy of men is ten years shorter than women, therefore women who are 60+ are often widows. And if young widows have a chance to get a second marriage, although in Ukraine it is often called treason, or to adopt a child from an orphanage.

I am not talking about the possibility of getting biological material from one’s own husband. Then all the widows are completely invisible. Also many of them have a good education and high potential. They are not registered anywhere in the statistical authority and neither the state nor the public have any prospects for the group of women. I appeal to your experience and ask you to include Ukrainian widows in your activities.

In turn, at the next congress, which we plan to hold by the end of this year, we will raise the issue of creating a committee of widows in the National Council of Women of Ukraine. Also, I, as the Vice President of the European Centre of International Council of Women, will ask questions about the creating of the Committee of Widows at the International Council of Women at the Assembly in the Philippines in November.

After all, there are much more widows in every country and in the whole world they’re the most marginalised group, and they have their own needs and opportunities. And we have the opportunity to make this group of women visible and use their potential to stabilise the economic, political, ecological, and psychological situation in the world.

Thank you for your attention. 

Margaret: Oh, thank you, Lyudmila. And you spoke about a whole lot of things we hadn't thought about, which are particular to Ukraine as well. When you actually spoke about these women who really want to, yes, have their babies from their husband, their dead husband, so go on and this idea of having that whole sperm bank so that they could actually go on to have children through that and the biological father is that dead husband. We haven't ever spoken about that before. And that's a particular issue perhaps in Ukraine where already so many women, particularly women, were having fewer and fewer children because it was so incredibly difficult to combine your career with childcare and having children. So you do have something we hadn't even thought about before.

Thank you so much for all of that. And also what I love what you said is that we mustn't, we must stop thinking of widows, all the time, exclusively as victims, but see them, as you said, as great leaders on every area and every aspect of life, whether it is about peace accords, whether it's about the climate crisis, saving the planet, about COVID, because we know that COVID made many, many widows. More men died in every country from COVID than women. 

But whatever it is, I love what you said about, say, widows are leaders, don't always see them all the time as victims. Thank you so much. 

I'm interested that there's this conference in the Philippines with the International Council of Women, so we've got to be sure that we get that on the agenda and also our Widow's Peace and Democracy, the Widow's Charter, which we did, first of all, set up with the International Council of Women. So, thank you very, very much. We will work on that to see if we can get a presence there. 

And now, I'm not sure now, have we got South Sudan here, Alice?

Alice:  It's just very special to have Agaw with us today, she's the founder of the Women's Support Network organisation in South Sudan. We are incredibly fortunate that you are able to attend today, knowing how fragile life is and how the environment in which you're living makes it difficult to talk at events like this, but we feel very privileged and honoured that you are with us.

I'll be quiet now. And Agaw, please educate us all on widowhood in South Sudan. 

Agaw: All right. Thank you so much for the chance I'm from South Sudan. One of the founders of the Women's Support Network, WASNU. First, let me introduce WASNU. WASNU started as a small group of women, young women, who lost their husband in a very early age of marriage. We used to gather and comfort ourselves and we address our issue privately. 

Most of the women, they were educated and they were working. But we realised that there's some widows who are not educated and they have a low level of education that need help and support. 

First of all, South Sudan have a very huge number of widows, roughly 60% - 70% due to the civil war and other factors that cause to this.  So therefore we started as a group and we decide to form an organisation called WASNU, Women's Support Network. The idea for WASNU was to empower widows, those who are not educated, to train them, to provide for them small tools that they can able to provide the small needs, basic needs to their families.

And then counselling as well, because, you know, one of the things that we face when you lost your husband, mentally, you cannot be really okay. Therefore, Women's Support Network was founded last year, March. I think we are a baby organisation, but we are on. The idea is to network some jobs. Sometime I can have a chance of a cleaner, something small that any woman can do, so we cannot work them to this because some they don't have that ability even to know where to go. Other things also, as I said earlier, it's, counselling as well, partly is for advocating for women rights, especially in the court of law, we have two lawyers who are one of the founders. 

one of the challenges that we face in South Sudan is not advocates for us as widows. I think my sister from Kenya, she mentioned so many things that maybe we share, we can come and be sharing it. Whenever you lost your husband, and you're still young, your in-laws treat you like, you're say, produce machine, like you should just continue with the journey your husband left, that you need to have more babies from your brother-in-laws and either you like him or you don't. And if you did not accept this and so many things, you face challenges, let me say it this way, which is most of the widows in South Sudan are facing it.

So that's saying you may not get something for your kids to have, like eat, go to school. You can be chased from the house and one of those things, being chased from my house, but the good thing that I was able to have another house of my own. So, those are the things that we really, really face.

Another thing that we face as an organisation, when we formed this organisation, we got negative impact from society itself. They thought that we are going to be against the law completely. Like, why are they doing this? What do they want to do? So they want to help our women to be able to reject all the traditional and culture that been there from, I think, a hundred years. So, those are the things we really face. 

And then, second to it, that, uh, we have a problem with articles, as I said earlier. Whenever that you are married, in our culture, even though your husband is gone, you have to be there, continuing your marriages with your brother-in-law. If you rejected that, it will be another problem, and if you go to the court, there's no article that are clear to save you or to help you to do so.

You will be referred to civil court, which will do nothing. In fact, will add more challenges and some problems into your life. 

Currently, I lost my husband four years ago. I cannot say that it was because it was like it should be from, be from my partner. But still, I'm not known.

I'm just like this, you see. Because if I go to the court now, I cannot get chance or I will not be allowed to be free. At least to start my life again, to remarry again, or what to do again. So those are the challenges. 

So I'm happy that to have a platform like this, where our voice will be heard globally. Maybe we'll get more help, we'll get more chances, at least, to express what exactly we are facing. 

But, what I would say is that If one of the things that we want to work on it is the article. 

Second is to empower our widows. 

If I'm strong, I can work because I said that ‘a strong woman, a strong community.’

If I am able to provide a meal or a basic need to my kids, no one can violate me. No one. But if I'm not, I will accept everything for the sake of my kids. I don't want to take much time. Thank you so much. I hope I summarise all the challenges that we are facing. Thank you so much.

Margaret: Oh, oh, that was incredible.

Thank you so much. All the things that you spoke about, I mean, just broadly as well. And you talked about the levirate, the levirate, when the widow in so many countries, not just in South Sudan, is expected to go on having children in the dead husband's name, through the Brother-in-Law, and these are, this is rape, it's rape, it's rape, it has to be called rape.

And then also you talk about the impossibility in so many countries, not just in yours, of widows being able to access the justice system. The whole corruption and patriarchal, corrupt nature of the very justice system and the courts and the powerful people that you are against. And the very idea that if you actually try to make an effort to go to the court and speak about what your husband's family have done to you, then you're only risking exposing yourself to even more violence, but just shows how what you speak about and you talk about in South Sudan. It's the common lot of widows in so many, so many countries, and there are just so many of us, so many of us. And we have got to really, I think we're coming to the end of this program now, Michelle, and maybe we can get Lily Thapar added at a later time. But really, I'm so grateful, we are all grateful to FiLiA for giving us this opportunity.

And again, I repeat Rosaline's question, when you show this webinar at your big meeting, I think comes from Glasgow in October, what do you think, who is going to see it? Because what we really want now, we want widowhood now really prioritised on all the agendas, whether it's the UN or governments or other big international NGOs, whether it's Oxfam or Plan International.

There's so many big NGOs, women's NGOs, who are still not really giving a voice to widows. And I also like what Rosaline was talking about, and others of you, that we really want to see criminalised. Criminalise those acts that take away from widows their rights as human beings and that those people who are the perpetrators of these acts that so harm widows, take away their rights, actually physically, mentally, verbally, economically, sexually abuse them, should be prosecuted. 

And that's what we want eventually. We want all this to be made criminal. I think I've got to stop now. But I now want to just say, that wherever, whatever we're talking about, whether we're talking about harmful traditional practices, and it is shocking that in all the meetings I've been to at the CSW, with the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, UNFPA, they talk about female genital mutilation, FGM, or child marriage, amniocentesis, but they will never, never, never talk about harmful traditional practices and mourning and burial rites that widows suffer.

So this is a scandal. It's a violence against us, even by a UN entity. So we want, wherever there's any, any talk about whether it's about COVID, because maybe there's more COVID coming back, whether it's about the climate crisis, whether it's about peace building and the ending of conflict, we've really got to be sure that widows are heard, that they are in the room and that is what we want. 

And thank you, all of you. You've been absolutely marvellous, I feel, I'm humbled to try and even conclude what you said, but thank you very much indeed. 

XX - Margaret, can I just ask one moment? We have Pasma here who had asked if she might just, because we've got so many speakers –

Margaret: Oh wonderful, Pasma, I met Pasma when I was in Sri Lanka.

And I'm thrilled that you're here, Pasma, because in Sri Lanka, Again, we coin the phrase, half widows, not only are there Over 40,000 missing men. But there are over a hundred thousand Tamil war widows, but there are over 30,000 half widows and many of the babies that were born of rape who end up in orphanages. That's true in so many countries. What happens to the babies who are born of these rapes? And again, what is happening right now to the Tamil widows? To the Muslim widows in Sri Lanka? Pasma, over to you, wonderful that you're here, thank you. 

Pasma: The problem I was going to say, the widows in Sri Lanka, as Margaret told, there are 89,000 altogether, and in the north and east, there are about 50,000 who are the minority Tamils.

And they belong mainly to the fishing folk, they are a fishing folk community. So, those people are already marginalised by society, but with becoming widows, the stigma is more stronger, the support structure is not there. So they are now finding difficult, extremely difficult, struggling to feed their children and themselves.

And some have gone into the bad service of prostitution, which is really alarming. That's one way of earning for them. That's terribly disheartening. Nobody will think. So it is a necessity, and they have extended families as well. It's not only them. Widow and the children, it's the mother-in-law, the father in law, brother in law, everybody involved. So how can they survive? 

And in the meantime, the half widows, though they are widows, because they don't know where the husband is, they are disappeared, forced disappearance. So they want to know where they are, and they are protesting for the last 10 years. And the Office for the Missing Persons or whatever have never replied anything to them. 

So what can we do as an international organisation to put pressure on the OMI or whatever to find out what happened to those widows whose husbands are missing? And the other thing is, economically, all these fisher folks should be helped. They are very, very Struggling, very struggling, too much, I would say, and the children also now begging on the street.

Oh, the climate in Sri Lanka is now very bad at the moment. That's all I can say, but if anybody can contribute to them that would be great. 

Margaret: Thank you so much, and I understand that there also, the militarisation in that part of Sri Lanka in the north, where there's so many soldiers and so many police and the widows are losing their land,

Pasma d: It’s already lost. They lost all their lands and belonging. That's why they are going out to the street.

Margaret: And then they, when they try and go and find out what happened to their missing husbands, then they meet terrible violence. They've even, widows have even been raped by the police. And we find that in so many countries, the same in Kashmir, when the women there try to find out from the police, are their husbands in prison, are they in a mass grave, where are they? Because there's no closure for them. 

And we often say, wretched as it is for widows, it's terrible to be a half widow because there's never any closure and you're in a sort of legal limbo. I think probably we've now got to stop now, Michelle, haven't we? Because we've gone over the time. And I am so grateful again, I say, to FiLiA for giving this opportunity and we hope that it will be seen all over the world.

 [RL1]Pasma? Missing as participant ‒ last contributor. See p17

 [RL2]It sounds like it could be 12 million, but google suggests 8 million.

 [RL3]This seems unlikely but it’s inaudible?

 [RL4]I don’t think this is right, but can’t make it out.