The COVID-19 pandemic has strained health systems, widened socio-economic gaps, and shifted strategic, political, and funding priorities, all of which disproportionately affect women and girls, particularly those who are most marginalized. The doubled risk of death for men from COVID-19 has not only created more widows; the pandemic has in many cases magnified the impact of the challenges they face, for example when confronted by extreme poverty from being disinherited from land and property with no alternative source of support.
Even before the pandemic, women struggled to find a livelihood after the death of husbands. In 40 per cent of countries, unequal legal inheritance rights and authority over assets persist. Without secure access to land and resources to support their independence and autonomy, widows are hard-pressed to provide for their day-to-day needs and those of their families, with implications for the realization of other rights, such as to food, health, housing, water, work and education. The challenges widows face present a focused lens through which to understand the broader picture of the issues that must be definitively addressed for women of all ages and conditions to thrive.
Often left without savings or any other income support, widows have been especially exposed to the sudden loss of employment during the pandemic, creating immediate and acute financial vulnerability, with serious consequences that range from food insecurity to increased susceptibility to human trafficking. In this context, the absence of any form of government social protection for widows in most developing countries is a particularly urgent issue. Alternatively, securing widows’ inheritance, land, and ownership rights, offering widows protections, such as unemployment insurance, cash transfers, food rations, and school bursaries, could have multigenerational benefits for their families. Protective measures such as these are especially important for those working in high risk, low paying or other precarious jobs in the informal economy in which widows often find themselves, as day labourers, temporary workers, and migrant domestic workers.
As grandparents, widows make substantial contributions to multigenerational households, providing care and sustenance to family members, particular grandchildren who may have lost a parent, often without recognition of this crucial but invisible and unpaid caregiving labour. During COVID-19, such care arrangements have been both intensified and disrupted during lockdowns, in the latter case leaving older widows living alone to suffer the loneliness pandemic amidst hardship. For COVID recovery and building forward, our societies and economies need to recognize the assets that they already have, and protect and enhance them through, for example, quality public social protection floors and care systems.
The upcoming Generation Equality Forum this month aims to address many of the barriers to gender equality and realization of women’s rights that have significant impact on the world’s widows, from rising poverty and violence, to accelerating climate change, and health, social, and economic systems that leave women and girls behind. It is a key moment for gender equality advocates from every sector of society – governments, civil society, private sector, entrepreneurs, trade unions, artists, academia and social influencers – to drive urgent action and accountability for gender equality and to bring about change that would be experienced by widows the world over.