On Thursday, June 23rd delegates from around the globe congregated at the United Nations building in New York City in recognition of the first annual International Widows Day at the United Nations. Bolstered by the support of Cherie Blair, Executive director of Global Partnerships Forum, Amir Dossal, and First Lady of Gabon, Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, International Widows Day is the product of a dream started by Lord Raj Loomba. Loomba built the Loomba foundation in memory of his mother, Shrimati Pushpa Wati who was widowed in India, a country that until disturbingly recently required widows to burn on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, at the young age of 37. In 2005 Blair launched International Widows Day at the House of Lords in London, and this important humanitarian conversation has continued to capture the interest of governments worldwide.
Loomba opened his remarks, noting, "As a founding member of the Loomba foundation I have campaigned hard for the recognition of international widows day. We observe it today and for generations to come we will continue to observe it until the widows of the world have obtained their rights and dignity." He continued, "I started my foundation because of the inspiration I got from my mother, I was only ten and a half years old when my father passed away. He died of tuberculosis. It wasn't my mother's fault that he died, but it was my mother who suffered for the rest of her life, exactly 37 years as a victim of widowhood." Loomba fortified his position with an anecdote recounting the difficulties and shame that had been heaped upon his mother for a "crime" that she could not control committing. "I remember," he began, "when I got married the priest asked my mother to move away because as a widow she could bring bad luck to the married couple. I was very angry and felt helpless in the moment. I could not understand how a mother who had taken care of me, brought me up, raised me could bring me bad luck, that is where this all started."
Dossal's brief talk focused on the concrete issues and numbers that contribute to and surround the global plight of widows. He explained, "If we look at the issue, its not 245 million widows we're talking about, but also the impact of children in this process, so we're actually talking about almost 1 billion people (15% of the population)" Dossal was sure to add, "his is not just an issue of developing countries, it is an issue in developed countries as well." Lyric Thompson, senior policy analyst for Women for Women International tempered Dossal's facts with the harsh reality that, "We don't have the kinds of statistics on widowhood that we need to make a case to policy makers and donors," citing the Loomba Foundation's website as the premiere resource for statistics and information on the widowhood problem.
Additional, legal factors beyond social stigma are equally detrimental to the livelihood of widows across the globe. For instance, in countries such as Yemen women are not able to own or inherit property and as such widows who lack the support of an extended family can find themselves left with nothing in the wake of tragedy. The instances of child brides, however, make the issue of widowhood all the more complex. Often times children are married to men more than twenty years their senior and while they may be freed by widowhood on the one hand they are left without the tools, resources, and education necessary to lift themselves from their impoverished and disenfranchised predicament. Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, founder of Windows for Widows concludes, "The incident of widowhood initiates the vicious cycle of poverty"
Thompson, however, is not without hope. She cites the work of her own organization in improving the lot of widows world-wide, sharing, ""Women for women is working with a variety of partners from governments to multilateral organizations as well as the private sector to open opportunities for women including widows who've survived war to get back on their feet again." She continued, "Our partnership with Kate Spade New York allows us to employ women in a variety of roles to allow them to create accessories for the 5th Ave shopping market from the comfort and safety of their own homes.," adding, "A widow said she's able to make more income working part time for Kate Spade from her home than her son can working full time in a factory."
Of course, humans are not the only people able to make a difference in the lives of widows. Therapy animals have been used to rehabilitate bereaved widows with great success. Psychiatrist, Dr. Ramsay considers his dog to be a part of his trade. "I think," he said, "about my dog in the way a cowboy thinks of his horse - he's part of the job." Professor Rebecca Johnson of the University of Michigan provides a scientific spin on pet therapy asserting that "It's chemical, not magical" in reference to animals' ability to read human emotions and react accordingly. One deject and unresponsive widow has even been seen to bounce back to her former brilliance through the hard work and puppy love provided by a service animal. Dr. Dawn A. Marcus of the University of Pittsburgh concurs, explaining; "Investigating the work that has been done evaluating therapy dog interactions from a scientific angle convinced me that this work is very important to the health and well-being of many individuals."
Ultimately, the delegates and representatives of philanthropic causes agreed that education and partnership were paramount in addressing the plight of the world's widows. Dossal calls for an inspired community movement, citing the support and services given to American widows in the wake of the 9-11 catastrophe. "We need a 9-11 effort for the widows around the world" said Dossal. He continued to place the onus for education on the husbands who statistically are more likely to leave their wives widows than the other way around, noting, "Men need to be educated that they need to prepare their spouses for widowhood if that might occur. We actually need to provide them financial acumen, and estate planning because women are CEO's of the house and they need to understand how to become CEO's outside."
Thompson asserts, "If we think creatively and work in partnership there are opportunities to address a widows needs while still speaking to the economic bottom line." She is supported by Loomba's optimism, which beams, "We need to develop partnerships world wide we need to join hands with between the have's and haves-not's, the rich and poor, men and women, but more importantly the governments of the world. Together we can consign bad practices to dust bins." Thompson, however is not content to reflect on the hardship the widows face and attempted to rally the gathered forces with her concluding statement, "We need international widows day as a day of action as well as reflection!"
International Widows Day is an ambitious undertaking with a heartwarming message. The Women around the world and throughout history have faced strife in its countless guises and it is high time that the world has turned its attention towards those women who are most in need of love, compassion, and a global commitment. Loomba concluded the day with his closing, motivating remarks. "People have heard our voice," he said, "they have cared and they have reunited us with dignity and respect. To the audience at this conference I say you are today witnessing a great social revolution. You now have the tools. Go back to your country and take the work forward!"
For more information on this pressing issue along with therapy options for the
bereaved, please investigate the following links.