Viewpoint by Roseline Orwa *
BONDO, Kenya (IDN) – COVID-19, the deadly pandemic that has upended our world, is also, according to a new report, “a widow-making machine”. The emerging scientific evidence that many more men than women are dying from COVID-19 shows that the coronavirus crisis is creating new widows even as global economic turbulence affects women who have been struggling with poverty, discrimination and injustice for years.
International Widows’ Day on 23 June is a reminder of the challenges faced by the world’s 258 million formidable, courageous widows and the 585 million children in their care – and the pandemic makes those challenges even greater.
In Kenya, estimated 8 million widows comprise nearly 15% of the population, rural widows remain disadvantaged by patriarchy, harmful cultural practices, and poverty. For the past four years, the Kenyan government has marked International Widows’ Day with efforts to raise awareness of the plight of widows.
But in remote rural villages, such as those where the Rona Foundation works, practices such as social discrimination, physical and mental abuse and sexual widow-cleansing continue. Widows’ land and property rights, ostensibly enshrined in law, are often a mirage.
These issues are not just national, of course, but international. The Global Fund for Widows, in its study “COVID-19 and Widowhood: The Virus’ Invisible Victim”, details how the intersections of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are failing to recognise the world’s women living in widowhood.
Globally, accessing justice and protecting rights is a daily struggle for widows, alongside bread and butter issues that have become more difficult in the pandemic, including the greater need for enhanced protection against health and HIV-related human rights violations.
But when it comes to what widows need, in many cases we do not even know what we do not know. In Kenya, a 2017 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics fails to mention widows at all, and it was not until 2019 that data on the country’s widows was captured for the first time, in a yet-to-be-released National Census Report.
One can be forgiven for thinking that the system is set up for widows to fail, unseen and uncounted. The absence of policies to protect them only compounds the loss of social status, the loss of a parenting partner and the countless other losses that follow the loss of a husband in a patriarchal society.
And despite a growing understanding that social justice campaigns should be built on “nothing for us, without us” principles, it is rare to see widows’ own stories of resilience and courage highlighted in civil society debate and in mainstream media and online platforms. Instead, the intermittent attention paid to them often begins and ends with well-meaning but vague sympathy.
In the wake of the pandemic, Kenya is facing a recession, unemployment, rising poverty, and, in so many widow-headed households, deprivation and hunger. COVID-19 has halted the once elaborate and costly burial ceremonies amongst certain Kenyan communities and ushered in new burial trends, but will it change widowhood cultural practices as well?
Perhaps the pandemic will bring gains via a long process of widowhood cultural reforms. For now, however, widowed women continue to confront lack of opportunity for themselves and their children, with the attendant risks of teenaged prostitution and pregnancy among girls and crime and delinquency among boys. It is a simple, terrible equation: vulnerable mothers lead to vulnerable children.
“The overwhelming feeling that everybody is having right now – the loneliness, loss, uncertainty and fear and every other emotion triggered by COVID19 – that’s what widowhood feels like. Widowhood prepared me. I have been living in a pandemic for these past 22 years,” Mama Linet, a 62-year-old widow who cares for four orphaned grandchildren, told me during one of our conversations at a food distribution point in Siaya.
“But not all the changes these days are losses,” she added, as she covered her nose with her over-used cloth mask. At newly installed hand-washing points placed at key public places in villages, it is noticeable how widowed women enjoy the hand-washing by the amount of time they take.
This is just one of the rare gains that Kenyan widows have to celebrate, 15 years on from the time the Loomba Foundation launched International Widows’ Day in the UK’s House of Lords in London on 26 May 2005. (Read more about how this global day of recognition and reflection began in this account.)
The good news is that across the globe, advocacy is increasingly being carried out by groups spearheaded by widowed women who challenge gender barriers. Some are joining the #ISTANDWITHWIDOWS campaign spearheaded by Rona Foundation.
Kenyan campaigners are calling on the government to address financial instability, disinheritance and social exclusion, and duty-bearers and policy-makers must build legislation to outlaw the harmful cultural practices meted out to women when they lose their husbands.
Interventions to change attitudes and behaviours, to engage more men as widow champions, and to devote resources to economically empowering rural widows during and beyond the pandemic are urgently needed, not only as a matter of human rights but as an urgent development agenda.
The Sustainable Development Goals set high ideals for human progress. Via the SDGs globally, legislation nationally and work to change attitudes locally, it is time to lift up widowed women – the mothers, daughters, sisters, carers and knowledge-givers working inside the home and in the formal and informal economies – if that progress is to be complete.
* Roseline Orwa is founder of the Rona Foundation, which supports rural widows and champions the protection and advancement of their rights, alongside orphan education, care and support via the Rona Orphans and Widows Centre in rural Kenya. She is an appointed Commissioned Expert with the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She tweets at @roselineorwa [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 June 2020]
Photo credit: World National Days .
IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.