International Widow's Day
Gather round, everyone, it’s time for another edition of the Personalized Cause awareness blog. Today we are going to talk about something that many people don’t realize, particularly if you were born and raised in countries like the United States, Canada, and Western European nations such as France, England, Spain, Italy, and other countries with similar social attitudes. Today is International Widow’s Day. As the name indicates, this is an observance that is dedicated to women who have lost their husbands. Becoming a widow is an unbearable experience for all wives; however, many people don’t know that in many other countries becoming a widow can threaten your safety, social status, income, rights, and ability to care for your children. So, today, we are going to discuss what it is like to become a widow in other places of the world, where you are nothing and have nothing without a husband. While International Widow’s Day is free to be observed in honor of all widows, the day was created in order to call attention to the plight of women who lose their husbands in countries where widows are stigmatized, ostracized, and victimized as part of the culture they live in.
In many other cultures and countries, a woman’s status and value is inseparably tied to their husband. When their husband dies, everything tied to him disappears with it. All that they were when their husband was alive is everything they are not after his death. Many widows are treated as if they are invisible in other countries. In some places, widows are demonized and abused, as if isolation and being cut off from their families and society were not enough. For these women, becoming a widow is not only emotionally painful, but potentially also physically dangerous, and socially disastrous. When I say socially disastrous, I don’t mean that they stop being invited to holiday parties or drop a couple pegs in the social hierarchy. For them, socially disastrous means that they are completely ostracized, sometimes even excommunicated.
In many countries, particularly Africa, widowhood comes with a dangerous stigma. Some cultures believe that if a husband dies, it is the wife’s fault. It is believed that they are cursed or witches. In fact, in some parts of the world, the word for widow can be traces back to a word similar to something like sorceress or witch. They are accused of witchcraft and murder, simply because their husbands passed away and they are women. There are horrific rituals required of widows as a rite of mourning or burial. The rituals vary by country and culture, but these are just a few of the things that widows are forced to do when they lose their husbands. Many of them basically punish the woman for her husband’s death. Some of rituals put the widow’s life at risk, and most are humiliating and demeaning.
In some parts of Africa a widow is forced to have sex with another man. Some indicate that it should be the first man they see; others specify a man that is designated, or the brother’s of the deceased man. If the woman does not, it is believed that harm will come to her children. This act is considered a cleansing ritual. The belief is that this sexual encounter rids the evil spirits that surround death, which the widow has been exposed to in her husband’s passing. When you consider the prevalence of AIDS in countries that hold these beliefs, it is easy to see how this ritual is not only disturbing but also potentially life threatening, if AIDS is contracted.
In some other countries, generally in parts of Africa or India but also in parts of Asia, a widow may be forced to perform other kinds of rituals, too. Some widows have to drink the water used to clean the dead body of their husband. In some places, widows are forbidden from bathing for months on end, with no exceptions. This practice is not only unhygienic, but it may actually cause health problems. Skin diseases often occur as a result, as can issues such as gastroenteritis and typhoid. Some widows are required to sit on a mat, completely naked, and cry and scream at specified times. Some widows are prohibited from feeding themselves and must rely on others to feed them, which often results in malnourishment. Many customs include making the widow appear to be disheveled, raggedy, and unappealing.
Once a woman’s husband dies, she may be refused her inheritance, and her land rights may be stripped from her. Often times, widows are forced out of their homes, physically, mentally, or sexually abused, and sometimes even killed as a result of their husband dying. If the widow hopes to escape the discrimination and exclusion of being a widow, they may have to remarry a male relative of her late husband. Sometimes, a widow may be forced to do this, whether she agrees or not. From culture to culture, one thing remains consistent in the mistreatment of widows, and the social attitudes that encourage the mistreatment, and that is that widows are shamed for the death of their husband. The rituals and rites forced upon widows may vary by region, but all of the women who have lost their husbands in nations who mistreat widows are made to feel ashamed, dishonored, and degraded.
Children of widows also face great hardships. Because their mothers are socially and economically ostracized, many children who just suffered the loss of their father are forced to quit school and find jobs to support the family. Girls are particularly vulnerable in these circumstances because they may be forced to work in prostitution, they may be forced into an early child marriage, they may be trafficked, and they may be sold. Widowed mothers do this not because they want to, but because they cannot take care of them. Sometimes, even though child marriage is disgusting, the child will have a food, water, clothes and shelter if they become a child bride. As horrible as the decision is, it may be the best option and chance for survival. The majority of the time, children are withdrawn from school to go to work immediately. Child labor is sometimes the only source of income in families where the father/husband has died. These children forced into child labor never return to school, and therefore spend the rest of their lives working jobs to get by. The vast majority will never have gainful employment. Often, this means perpetuating a cycle of poverty.
There is such a profound and engrained sense of stigma for widows in some cultures that women who have lost their husbands sometimes commit suicide, rather than be forced to carry on living with the intense shame and dehumanization that comes with life as a widowed woman. A very large percentage of widows suffer from severe anxiety and depression because of the way they are treated and the poverty they are forced to live in. This kind of depression has terrible ramifications on the children, who are grieving themselves. Children of widowed women are forced to grow up in poverty, many times, despite the status they held or the lifestyle they were accustomed to when their father was alive. The loss of the male head of the household is devastating for all immediate members of his family.
I appreciate you taking the time to read about International Widow’s Day. The plight of widows is a little known fact in the western world. In fact, many census reports, statistical analyses, and population data collection fails to represent them accurately because they become invisible in their culture. It’s an issue that needs addressing, and the first step is to spread the word about what goes on. Losing a husband is difficult in any culture, but I can’t even imagine what it must be like to then spend the rest of your life being shamed for your loss. I’d like to wish all widows a day of peace and fond remembrance today. May their memories always make you smile.
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