REPORT ON WIDOWHOOD ROUNDTABLE II AT THE 49TH SESSION OF THE UN COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN
28TH February- 11th March
By Margaret Owen and Martha Jean Baker
29 March 2005
We are exceedingly grateful for the great interest the Sigrid Rausing Trust has and is taking in the issues relating to widowhood in the context of poverty, AIDS, conflict, post-conflict, gender discrimination, and women’s human rights. This subject has truly been (and continues to be) scandalously neglected by the international community, including UN agencies and major donors, and by governments.
Without your sponsorship of our work in preparing for this UN CSW, this important event would not have taken place and concrete and effective actions in this crucial area of women’s human rights would have been further postponed, with irrevocable negative consequences not just for women, but for all of society.
The meeting, co-hosted with UNIFEM, went better than our wildest expectations! This was due to the excellent calibre of the four panellists, the pertinent and urgent contributions from the participants, the charismatic presence and words of Noeleen Heyzer, the Executive Director of UNIFEM, and the fact that we even had one major donor – SIDA – in attendance.
Margaret Owen selected, briefed and commissioned short papers from the four panellists. These were Judge Zakia Hakki, Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (the first woman judge in the Middle East and Iraq, recently elected and now appointed as Inspector of Planning), Mary Balikungeri, Director, Rwandan Women’s Network, Lily Thapa Chairperson of Women’s Human Rights Single Women’s Group of Nepal (WHRSWG), Dr. Caren Grown, Director, International Centre for Research on Women (focuses on widows, land and inheritance rights and AIDS).
Margaret Owen prepared 4 papers:
- A draft Model Widow’s Charter (using the CEDAW and other human rights treaties, and 1325 as a basis)
- An analysis of the CEDAW, Beijing Platform for Action, SCR 1325 and the Millennium Goals from the perspective of widowhood
- Description of the Mapping and Profiling project through which widows’ grass-roots groups, undertaking their own assessment of their situation, fill the gaps in knowledge, statistics and data on the issues of widowhood.
- A “Statement” on the widowhood issue, describing its invisibility in the BPFA, the huge increases in numbers of widows of all ages and wives of the missing in the context of conflict, AIDS and violence, and the reasons why all efforts to achieve the MDGs, stem the spread of AIDS, or bring peace to conflict afflicted countries will be frustrated if this area of women’s rights remains unaddressed.
The Meeting: Held at the UN on Friday 4th March, 2005
This 49th Session of the UN CSW was organized to undertake the 10-year Review of Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. This year, 2005, is also the year of the Millennium Summit (September) and the 25th birthday of CEDAW providing an opportune year to draw attention to the situation of widows.
Conference Room B was filled to capacity so that many people were unable to get in (including Baroness Prosser, Chair of the UK WNC). The presentations and the comments and questions were such a high level that the SIDA representative, fielding questions on donor’s responsibilities and obligations, announced that she will explore holding a Donor’s Conference in Stockholm to deliberate how they can do more to support and fund grass-roots groups and newly mobilized women, rather than outside NGOs. Instances of best practice were shared for example, Nepal WHRSWG had filed a shadow report on widowhood to the CEDAW, triggering interest from the UNDP in relation to MDGs. The Nepal government, unable to answer their questions as to numbers and ages of widows, has now requested WHRSWG to undertake the “mapping and profiling” project in several districts of Nepal.
The Iraqi panellist, an eminent and influential figure, is determined to pursue a situational analysis of widowhood in her country where she estimates that 65% of the adult female population are either widows or wives of the missing, and that 70% of children are dependent on these women. Irrespective of ethnicity, location, education level, after thirty years of war and the horrors of the Saddam Hussein, the widows and wives of the missing are vulnerable now to violence, trafficking, forced prostitution. Although Iraqi widows have never been stigmatized as, for example, Nepali widows, the horrors of recent years, the huge numbers of widows, and their vulnerability to violence from many different sources in the unstable post conflict period prioritises this issue for the new democratic Iraq.
- The CEDAW committee wish to show “Born Again” (Lily Thapa’s moving film of the “dehumanization rite” of the Nepali widow) at the CEDAW June meeting.
- SIDA (Sweden) has commissioned a report on widowhood issues from Margaret Owen and will explore feasibility of a Donors’ Conference in Stockholm to address bilateral and multilateral funding criteria.
- Possibility opening up of DFID/British Council Civil Society Fund entertaining proposals from Iraqi NGOs and Iraqi Government proposal on widowhood situation
- We only stayed the first week of CSW and then Margaret Owen went to Washington. On Monday, the 7th March, she was invited to a breakfast meeting at the Iraqi Embassy, with the Iraqi Minister Plenipotentiary, people from USAID and from the US Baghdad Embassy, the Minister for Women, and our panellist, Judge Hakki. The Minister was so impressed by Judge Hakki’s description of the CSW event that he offered the suggestion that Iraq hosts a Regional Conference on the subject next year. They wish to “adopt” the draft Widows’ Charter, use it in their drafting of the new constitution and law reforms, undertake the mapping and profiling, and establish a national Federation of Widows of Iraq with branches and clusters in every town and village across the country. They see this as transcending ethnic and religious divides, a means of unifying the women of the country, and providing widows with urgently needed information on their rights, including their status when their husbands are missing and no declaration of death, under present Iraqi law, is permitted for 10 years after the disappearance. Margaret Owen also had discussions with Dr. Caren Grown, our 4th panellist, at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). And on Tuesday was invited to an International Women’s Day event hosted by the IFC on women and micro credit where she was able to bring up the needs ( and often the exclusion) of widows from benefiting from these initiatives because of their lack of land rights and necessary collateral.
- Lily Thapa is organizing a regional conference on widowhood in Nepal in May. She has invited the other 3 panellists to attend, as well as the Womankind coordinator from Afghanistan. The SIDA representative will also participate. It is to be funded by USAID. (She has asked both of us to attend and has asked Margaret Owen to be their key note speaker, but we warned her that it will be near impossible for her to get funding for our fares.)
- WILPF through its Peacewomen project and website (www.peacewomen.org) will be publishing the notes from the CSW event as soon as they are checked for accuracy.
We have been invited to attend and Widows for Peace through Democracy has been asked to cosponsor the first ever panel on widowhood at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on 4 April 2005. Margaret Owen will attend for us and will speak as part of the panel. The draft Widows’ Charter will be presented again at that meeting. This event is organized by WILPF and includes two former international WILPF presidents.
There is much more to be done. And we hope that we can come back to the Sigrid Rausing trust in due course, when the next steps to be taken become clearer. We were told by our own WNC during debriefing session at the UK Mission to the UN that this event was one of the very best of the week. (Cf. Janet Veitch, Director of WNC. Valerie Evans, former Chair of WNC)
Thank you very much indeed.
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