Statement by Ambassador Byrne Nason at Arria Meeting on Widowhood
Statement16 November 2021
Thank you very much Chair, I am delighted to be here this afternoon.
I want to thank Niger in particular for taking this initiative to get to grips with the gaps in protection for widows in conflict and post-conflict settings.
I want at the start to openly acknowledge what I think is the powerful voice for peace that widows have been in conflict contexts around the world over time.
From the horrors of the First World War to today, the women who are mourning the millions of lives lost to conflict have often been among the greatest advocates in our societies for peace.
I think the relatives of the disappeared, for example, the women relatives of the disappeared in Syria; or the widows and mothers of the victims of Srebrenica, who have been really, our moral conscience over time in their tireless search for justice.
Very often, the focus of the international community moves on, and these are the women who call us back, they call back our attention, demanding accountability. That’s obviously because they are living the daily reality on the ground, those who have been robbed of partners or family members.
As we discuss the protection gaps faced by widows, I want to be clear at the outset that women of course should not be defined by their relationship to a male relative. We must all be regarded as equal before the law, whether that is in our constitutions, in legislation governing inheritance and tax, or in how governments distribute social protection for example.
Regrettably, often this is not the case, and is the cause of so much hardship for widows. Their personal suffering at the loss of a partner then gets itself transformed into a desperate struggle for survival.
Fundamentally, this comes down to gender inequality and to power dynamics in the society women live in.
Discriminatory inheritance and civil status laws can often mean that women whose partner has died or disappeared find themselves unable to access their family’s resources, or to claim land or property rights that we would say are rightfully theirs. In some cases they can even lose guardianship of their own children, tragically, or are treated as outcasts from their own societies.
Legal discrimination can be compounded by societal marginalisation in a world where it is really difficult to secure recognition for the many different forms a family can take. So, unfortunately, there is limited legal recognition worldwide for example, for same-sex partnerships, with devastating impact when a partner in such a relationship dies.
Gendered social norms also mean that men whose female partners were the main breadwinners find themselves as widowed people in financial difficulty when they cannot access survivors’ pensions. There are very practical and real life challenges involved in what we are speaking about today.
I would argue that it is clear that gender inequality is at the root of so many of the issues facing widows in conflict settings. Addressing that, including through implementation of international human rights standards, remains the key to closing the protection gaps in the long term. But the fact is, as we know every day, we have to meet the world as it is and, regrettably, and I have to recognize that gender equality itself is still somewhere over the horizon. That is why we have to take account of widows in the here and now, in the situation they are living in now, as we design our humanitarian and protection responses. Our strong Women, Peace and Security framework, including resolutions that we have all agreed to at the Council, already allows for this. What we lack very often, clearly, is the actual implementation. That is an ongoing challenge.
To address the needs of widows, we need gender-responsive humanitarian and protection package of responses right across the conflict and post-conflict spectrum. This means importantly – I never cease to say it – we want to see women sitting at the table influencing the planning and decision-making, it means ensuring that gender perspectives are brought in and underpin all of our policies, and it also means, importantly, that working with local women and women-led organisations on the ground who understand these realities, who see the day-to-day impacts, becomes a natural part of the way that we go about trying to assist widows and using our own policy framework to help them in that protection gap that I have focused on.
So I will conclude Ms. Chairman saying that I am grateful that you raised this issue today, I think it is a rally important one, it is one that we touched upon when we visited Niger recently, both with your own Government and members of civil society that we met.
We know that the pain of bereavement is inherent to the human condition, it is made infinitely worse by the cruelty of war. Our job at the Council is to ensure that the diverse needs of women, including widows, are at the centre of the way that we look at our and the way we take this work forward. Thank you again for raising what I think is a really important and weighty issue and I am glad to have been here with you.