The death of a spouse or partner is one of the most life-changing losses anyone can endure. Around the world, widows face not only emotional trauma, but financial instability and social isolation. That’s why June 23 is International Widows’ Day, raising awareness of the range of problems faced by widowed women at home and abroad.
Of the estimated 259 million widows worldwide, around 38 million live in extreme poverty. In some countries, women cannot inherit property, or are considered property themselves, and are evicted from their homes when their husband dies.
Social stigma against widows can make things even worse. In some places, widows are even considered an omen of bad luck. They are shunned by friends and family, or blamed for their husband’s death, even when all evidence points to the contrary. All of this adds up to extreme social isolation, with no one to help them bear the burden of widowhood.
Far from being a problem confined to developing countries, these issues are a lot closer to home than we might expect. In the UK too, people who lose a spouse or partner may face financial instability, debt and even homelessness.
“The impact of losing a partner on both an emotional and practical level is absolutely devastating,” said Vicky Anning, communications manager at Widowed and Young (WAY), which supports people after the death of a spouse or partner. She says that International Widows’ Day is an important reminder for us think about and support people who have lost a partner, both at home and abroad.
“Not only are you coming to terms with the heartbreak of losing the person you shared your life with, you are also coming to terms with the new financial reality of surviving on just one income,” she says. “WAY members with children often say that being a widowed parent is like doing twice the work for just half the pay.”
A recent survey of members of WAY, supported by comparethemarket.com, showed that nearly three-quarters of widowed parents still do not feel financially secure 18 months after the death of their partner. Over a third had to decrease their working hours or go part time, and 13 per cent had to leave their jobs completely. Seventeen per cent of those surveyed had to relocate or move home as a result of their bereavement. Vicky explained that some WAY members have fallen into debt after the death of their partner.
Although the challenges of becoming widowed affect both men and women alike, International Widows’ Day is dedicated to women, because these issues are more likely to affect widows than widowers.
In developing countries where men are more likely to be the sole earner in a family, bereavement widens the social and economic gaps of gender inequality. Because widowed women are likely to earn much less than their late husbands, if they can make a living at all, their children are often forced into work and deprived of an education.
Here in the UK too, women are more likely to lose a partner and more likely to be hit by financial hardship in the wake of bereavement.
“It is a sad fact that far more women are widowed under the age of 50 than men,” Vicky explains. “Tragically this is because far more men die at a young age, either through illness or accident or through taking their own lives.”
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 83,310 people are widowed under 50, of which 59,321 are women and 23,207 are men – not including those who were co-habiting with a partner and not married.
“For families where the husband or male partner was the breadwinner, this inevitably leads to more financial problems for the woman who is left behind,” Vicky said. “It’s not just about the financial challenges, however. There are many emotional and practical challenges to navigate as you come to terms with the ‘new normal’ of life as a young widow or widower.”
That’s where organisations like WAY come in. Their peer-to-peer support groups help people to rebuild their social life with other people who understand exactly what they’re going through. With more than 2,600 members across the UK, WAY strives to provide the support that people need after the death of a partner.
Widowed people in the UK are more likely to have access to practical, financial and emotional support, through bereavement organisations like WAY and government bereavement benefits, compared to many widows and bereaved families across the globe. But it’s a support network that we need to fight to protect, says Vicky.
“That’s why we campaigned so hard against the cuts to Widowed Parent’s Allowance, which has been a lifeline for so many of our members – helping to support them until their children have left full-time education.
“Many widows and widowers in poorer countries aren’t lucky enough to have the network of support we benefit from – but it is being eroded."
“How you look after the most vulnerable members of your society sends a powerful message to the world. As the results of our survey illustrate, young widows and widowers are among the most vulnerable in our communities. They deserve as much support as possible to help them rebuild their lives after the tragedy of losing their partner, wherever they are living.”
International Widows’ Day was launched in 2005 by the Loomba Foundation, which strives to provide help for widows across the world. In India, it has helped thousands of women learn vocational skills such as sewing and tailoring to help them through the economic uncertainty of widowhood. Find out more about the Foundation’s work and how you can get involved this International Widows’ Day.