A Consultative Workshop on Mainstreaming Rights of Widows and Single Women in Public Policy was organised and hosted in Islamabad by Aurat Foundation Pakistan on 23-24 May 2012. Aurat Foundation is a member of the South Asian Network for Widows’ Empowerment in Development (SANWED). Born out of concern for the plight of widows in South Asia, SANWED was established in 2003 and is based in Kathmandu. Its vision is a world in which all widows enjoy their full human rights and live with dignity. It owes much of its recognition to the efforts of Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights (WHR) in Nepal and the determination of Margaret Owen, Director of Widows for Peace Through Democracy (WPD) who is SANWED’s international focal person.
I attended SANWED’s meetings on behalf of Aurat Foundation in Chennai in 2005, Kathmandu in 2010 and the conference launching International Widows’ Day on 23 June 2006, with Cherie Blair in the chair, in London. For different reasons and to different degrees, widows are marginalised in South Asian societies. In Hindu communities, they suffer from the worst forms of discrimination, which led Lily Thapa to found SANWED, after she lost her husband many years ago. Their plight is reflected in the book edited by Mohini Giri, Living Death. At the mercy of cruel customs and patriarchal authority, they are considered inauspicious and exist on the fringes of life. They are invariably deprived of whatever inheritance they are entitled to under law and custom.
In Pakistan, widows fare badly mainly because they are cheated out of their inheritance which is guaranteed by law and bullied by their families. They may be considered inauspicious but neither religion nor tradition prevents widows from getting married again. The practice of a widow being married off to her late husband’s brother has been criticised as a form of slavery by women’s rights activists. Although the widow herself might not want it, the practice was originally meant to provide for and protect the widow and her children. It was considered as a kind of social security or family responsibility. The state provides financial assistance to widows and orphans through the Zakat and Baitul Mal systems as does the Benazir Income Support Programme. Besides, Pakistan has one of the highest rates of philanthropy in the world and widows are one of the main beneficiaries of charity. This generosity does not, however, empower and embed them in the economic and social system.
The cumulative lot of widows in South Asia has worsened due to natural disasters, conflict and war. The massive earthquake in 2005 and floods in recent years in Pakistan left thousands of women bereft as widows. Ethnic cleansing, enforced disappearances and missing persons have added to the tragedy in the SAARC region. The worst current scenario is in conflict-ravaged Sri Lanka, where Tamil widows running into hundreds of thousands, discriminated against, punished by custom and ignored by the state, are the main sufferers. Our partners in India have also highlighted the condition of women who became widows because of the uprising in Kashmir and insurgencies in other parts of India.
The Workshop organised by Aurat Foundation provided a great opportunity to exchange experiences and best practices. It was attended by delegates from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and by my Girton (University of Cambridge) friend, Margaret Owen. Representatives of Aurat Foundation, women’s rights, civil society and some professional organisations in Pakistan were present in full force. Particularly heart warming was the presence of elected women members from all the four provincial assemblies who sat through and contributed to all the sessions. To their support we owe a great deal in our struggle to get pro-women laws enacted in Pakistan.
Many of the international delegates were experienced in the field of widows’ empowerment with many achievements to their credit but we were all moved by the poignant description of the condition of Tamil widows in Sri Lanka by Shanti Sachithanandam. As expected, the discussion tended to move towards the rights of women in general and had to be steered towards the specific problems of widows and the need to give them a face and voice in the formulation of public policy.
UNSC Resolution 1325 of 2000 recognises the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace negotiations and peacekeeping. The follow-up UNSC Resolution 1820 of 2008 aims at creating awareness and countering sexual violence during war and post conflict situations. One session was devoted to achievements and barriers in incorporating widows’ issues in these instruments and other human rights treaties and tools.
At the conclusion of the Workshop, the house adopted the Islamabad Declaration on Mainstreaming the Rights of Widows as the way forward. This Declaration calls upon the UN system, SAARC and each government to take note of the Charter of Widows’ Rights of 2006 and legislate, formulate policies and take action in accordance with it and against all practices which deny widows the right to live with dignity..
The extent of discrimination in widowhood is very much a question of the level of poverty in each country. It is rare for affluent women across the world to suffer as widows in the same way as poor women do. Therefore, lifting women generally out of poverty and enabling them to acquire independent incomes and livelihoods is essential. It is also imperative to formulate laws and policies which protect them against all forms of prejudice and discrimination.
The Pakistan Sanwed Chapter was launched at the conclusion of the Workshop. The full proceedings of the Workshop can be accessed here or by clicking the top left photo in this post. I am not in the top left photo. (Rather, seated left to right are Ms. Anis Haroon, Her Excellency Cecilie Landsverk, Dr Mohini Giri, Ms. Margaret Owen, Ms Hina Jilani, Syeda Fiza Batool Gilani.)
Dr. Masuma Hasan is the Chairperson of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. She is also the President of Aurat Foundation, Pakistan.