Becoming a widow is a terrible experience, no matter who you are or where you live. But for some women, the loss of a husband is only the first in a series of losses. In addition to dealing with the pain and loneliness of losing a spouse, widows in many parts of the world are also dispossessed of their land and their homes, becoming outcasts from their communities.
In many places, women depend on men for access to the land on which they rely for housing and for their livelihoods. When those relationships are interrupted, as when a husband dies, these women may be forced to leave their homes and their land. In fact, widows around the world are routinely forced off the land they rely upon because their rights to that land were tied to their husbands.
A woman who moved to her husband’s land when she married, for instance, may be considered a stranger to the community in which she built her life. Because she is not considered by her community to have independent rights over the land she uses, she may have no recourse if her in-laws or other family members decide to remove her from that land—a removal that is often done by force.
This is unfortunately common. I have met with women in countries from Kenya to Liberia to India who have shared stories of such dispossession. Widows without children are especially vulnerable, but even those with children may be forced to leave, forced to marry the brother of a husband, or even forced to give up those children.
In many of these countries, the majority of women are in customary marriages which may not have all of the protections of registered marriages, such as co-ownership of property. Their land may be considered “family land,” under control of the head of the family. Even in cases where there are strong legal protections, they may not know the law, or may be unable to access a lawyer or the court system.
In these places, widows in mourning are forced to fight off relatives or cope with sudden homelessness. Older widows lose the land they have worked on and developed all their lives, while younger widows may struggle to find a way to house and feed their children.
On this International Widows Day we are reminded of the importance of securing women’s land rights. We work towards a day when no widow is dispossessed because she loses her partner. By changing laws, changing practices, and raising awareness, we work to protect women and ensure they can enforce their rights. You can learn more about the work we do to secure these rights at resourceequity.org, and about widows in particular here.