Bringing widows to the forefront: UN Women launches new regional programme


New Delhi -  An estimated 15,000 widows live on the streets of Vrindavan in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Their survival stories are rarely heard or known. On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on 8th March, UN Women announced the launch of a new regional programme to address the needs of widows in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“India has an estimated 40 million widows in India, and due to religious and social taboos, their lives are often mired in poverty, neglect, and deprivation. The time has come for us to act and create space for widows in mainstream policy and social welfare schemes. Their situation has to be recognized and addressed,” said Anne F. Stenhammer, Regional Programme Director, UN Women South Asia.

The three-year programme, funded jointly by UN Women Swiss National Committee and the Standard Chartered Bank, will be implemented in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka to reduce the social ostracism faced by widows. This will be done by collecting data and evidence to highlight the stigma faced by them by working with widows’ coalitions so they can speak up and access public services, and finally by guaranteeing that discrimination social practices against widows are reviewed and repealed. Highlighting the specific challenges faced by widows in Sri Lanka, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Executive Director, Women’s Education and Research Centre, says that the best way to boost the self-esteem and confidence of widows is to help them move up the economic ladder. “We need to make them understand that they can contribute productively to society and that they can make a difference.”

Plans are also afoot to work with local community leaders so they can help to champion the cause of widows. While in India, UN Women will work with widows affected by HIV, in Nepal and Sri Lanka the focus will be on young widows in Nepal and widows living in conflict areas. The programme will be implemented in partnership with the Guild of Service and Astha Sansthan in India, the Women for Human Rights (WHR) in Nepal and Women’s Education and Research Centre in Sri Lanka.

“This programme will hopefully bring many policy level changes in government schemes. For example, under the Widows Pension Scheme in Nepal, only widows over 60 years of age are eligible. We would like to lobby that the Government reduce the age,” says Tracy Ghale, Programme Manager, Women for Human Rights/Single Women’s Group.

A survey done to gauge the situation of widows in Vrindavan by the Guild of Service and UN Women revealed startling figures. A large number of widows are living far below the poverty line defined by the World Bank and even the Planning Commission. Although 70 percent of the women had heard of the destitute widow’s pension scheme, only a quarter of all widows received pension. “There are many widows in difficult circumstances, such as farmers’ widows, riot and religious widows. We have to come forth and address their specific needs,” says Mohini Giri, Chairperson, Guild of Service.