LONDON • Millions of widows around the world are left destitute after being robbed of their inheritance, while others are enslaved by their in-laws, accused of witchcraft or forced to undergo abusive sexual rituals, research shows.
The crushing poverty and persecution faced by widows worldwide is outlined in a major report on widowhood that was presented to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon yesterday.
"Widows have been suffering in silence for centuries, and yet nobody - no government, not even the UN - has ever attended to this problem," said Lord Raj Loomba, a campaigner on widowhood, who will discuss the issue with Mr Ban in New York.
There are more than 258 million widows worldwide with one in seven living on less than US$1 (S$1.40) a day, said the Global Widows Report produced by the Loomba Foundation, which helps empower widows.
Newly widowed women in many developing countries are often plunged into destitution after being disinherited and evicted by their in-laws, sometimes losing their children. Mr Loomba said that those who remain reliant on their in-laws are often treated like slaves, abused physically, psychologically and sexually. The deprivation faced by widows is devastating because of the impact on their children, who may be forced into child labour or early marriage.
Estimates suggest the number of widows has risen 9 per cent since 2010, partly because of conflicts in the Middle East, the report said.
Child marriage is another cause of early widowhood. Many girls are left prematurely widowed after being married off to much older men. Young widows who cannot support their children are in turn more likely to marry off their daughters early, perpetuating the cycle.
Two of the most harmful traditional practices are "widow cleansing" and "widow inheritance". Both fuel the spread of Aids, Ebola and other diseases. Cleansing rituals in Sub-Saharan Africa may require a new widow to drink the water used to wash her husband's corpse, or to have sex with his brother or a stranger to "exorcise" her husband's spirit.
Mr Loomba said superstitions surrounding widowhood mean the women are often blamed for their husbands' deaths and accused of witchcraft.