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Nearly 50% of Widows Live in Poverty: We Can Change That

By Saba Ghori, Associate Director of Social Empowerment, Women for Women International 

Today, as we mark International Widow’s Day, we cannot forget the plight of the 245 million widows around the world, 115 million of whom live in poverty and neglect.  Many widowed women lack economic opportunities and live on the fringes of society, socially stigmatized and often blamed for the loss of their husbands. In some societies, they are killed for practicing witchcraft or are subjected to living lives of seclusion in grief, undergo funeral rites such as head shaving or even subjected to marrying male relatives of their deceased husbands.

Widows are regularly ignored by government and NGO programs, unaccounted for in statistics and thus invisible.  Without economic opportunities or prospects for livelihood, widows are often forced to beg or engage in sex work.  Their children are often taken out of school and subjected to child labor and not given opportunities for education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty. 

Since 1993, Women for Women International has been dedicated to supporting women survivors of war, many of whom are widows, to become catalysts for change.  We invest in building the knowledge, skills, and resources of marginalized women in four key areas—earning and saving money, health and well-being, rights and decision-making, and social networks and safety nets.  

We work in countries with some of the highest numbers of widows—countries devastated by war and conflict—including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  In 2016, out of a total of 17,268 women who graduated from our program across all our active countries, 2,009, or 9% of the women we served were widows. 

Women such as Eman Kassim Salman, a widow from Iraq who is the sole breadwinner for her seven children, began our program barely making ends meet. Thanks to the cooperative she helped organize through our program with other women, she learned tailoring and is now earning $120 per month.  Eman’s group holds regular meetings and coordinates their production to supply school uniforms and clothing for special occasions like Eid and other holidays.  She spends her monthly income to provide food, stationary, and clothes for her children.  Eman is also able to save a portion of her income each month and purchased a small stove and sewing machine.

Eman balances her domestic obligations with her work by completing all her tailoring work while her children are at school. She says, “My life is better than before. I feel comfortable because I am working with my colleagues to gain income. I have a good reputation in the area, and my skill in tailoring is better than before. I hope to continue with my colleagues in our co-op to expand our work and find more market linkages.”

International Widow’s Day reminds me of my grandmother, who was widowed in her 40s shortly after India’s independence.  As she donned the traditional white attire of Indian widows and struggled to make ends meet, she always instilled in her six children the importance and value of an education so that they could have more opportunities and a better life.

I am proud of the work Women for Women International does to support widows in countries affected by conflict. Having seen the strength of my grandmother to provide for her family and provide a better life for her children, I know that this path is not an easy one to take. My grandmother, and the widows in our program, have strength beyond words and are resilient in the face of loss. We honor widows around the world today on International Widows day. We honor my grandmother, we honor Eman, and we honor all the women in our program who have continued on despite their loss. 

Learn more about our work here.