Ken Walker, author

After two decades of fighting to eliminate the U.S. military’s “widow’s tax,” Cathy Milford finally succeeded, but she won’t benefit from that change for another three years. That’s how long it will take until she receives full survivor benefits instead of only partial. Though the U.S. Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the bill only phases out the tax by 2023.

Cathy Milford

Cathy Milford successfully fought to eliminate the U.S. military’s “widow’s tax”. Photo by Doug Jones, Medium

“This is just an awful thing to do,” Milford said at a Capitol Hill rally in May 2019, recalling her 25 years of pushing for repeal; her late husband, Harry, suffered a fatal aneurysm soon after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard. “Every time I talk about this, I have to dig my husband up and bury him all over again.”1

The dispute revolved around awards given to survivors of veterans who die of service-related causes (the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program, or DIC) and a separate, life insurance-type program known as the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP). While individuals who qualified for either have received full payouts, those getting income from both saw SBP funds reduced by one dollar for every DIC dollar since 1972. The difference of up to $1,000 a month affects 67,000 surviving spouses.

“This problem goes back decades, but this year we finally solved it once and for all,” said Maine senator Susan Collins after the bill’s passage in December 2019.2

That securing additional benefits for military survivors took such a protracted fight symbolizes the plight of widows worldwide. Whether husband-less females in Nigeria who have been branded “witches,” women in Asia blamed for their husbands’ deaths and other calamities, or those in South Africa who can lose inheritance rights when in-laws object, the world’s 258 million widows often face an uphill battle.

Widow at cemetery

Women who lose a spouse can face difficult and complicated problems even in affluent societies, as the U.S. military widows’ battle illustrates.

Nearly one in 10 lives in extreme poverty, says the United Nations (UN).3 While widows have specific needs, their voices are often missing from policies affecting them.

“In some Asian cultures, when a woman’s husband dies, she is often stripped of her dignity, her worth and her human rights,” says K.P. Yohannan, founder of Gospel for Asia (GFA). “Many of these widows are deprived of their home, their property and their possessions—leaving them destitute. Lacking the ability to earn a living, and with no access to savings or credit, millions of widows all across Asia fight every day for their survival, all the while shunned and shamed.”4

As the military widows’ battle illustrates, women can face problems even in affluent societies. Another example of the slighting of American widows surfaced in a 2018 report. The Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reviewed cases of dual eligibility, where a widow can receive her benefit or a deceased spouse’s. The OIG found that 82 percent of the time the Social Security Administration failed to follow its own procedures for spelling out maximum benefit options.5

According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Loomba Foundation’s most recent World Widows Report:

The United States ranks third in the world for the most widowed women with more than 14 million.

Forty-nine percent earn less than $25,000 a year, meaning “widowhood is often a ticket to poverty.”6

In practical numbers:

More than 740,000 widows are unable to provide food, shelter and basic necessities for themselves.

Secondary losses often crush widows, who subsequently may lose homes, jobs, insurance or credit.

In giving 100 stress points for losing a spouse, the Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale ranks loss of a spouse at No. 1. Other losses can push a widow’s stress level near 300 points, meaning an 80 percent chance of serious illness.

Sisters of Compassion pray for a widow

Three Sisters of Compassion from GFA World were photographed for this disheartened widow who had recently lost her husband to a tiger attack -- a common occurrence in the Sundarbans of West Bengal, India.

Worldwide Problem

Problems for widows exist worldwide. According to the World Bank, it is especially bad in much of Africa, where marriage is the sole basis for women’s access to social and economic rights, which often vanish after widowhood or divorce. Policy reforms that can help address disadvantages to widows, the World Bank says, are regarding property ownership, inheritance rights, registration of customary marriages and widows’ pensions.

Asli Demirguc-Kunt

Widows: Invisible & Excluded - Asli Demirguc-Kunt Photo by Worldbank.org

“In the face of divorce or widowhood, women often struggle with serious economic hardship,”7 said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, director of research at the World Bank.

For example, women frequently inherit nothing when a marriage ends. They can be shut out of labor markets, own fewer productive assets and bear more responsibility for caring for children or the elderly.

“Just as widows are often hidden from view in their own communities, the absence of data limits broader public awareness of the issue,” said the story “Invisible and Excluded.” “Quantifying the prevalence of widowhood and divorce requires information on both current widows and divorcees as well as the marital history of currently married women, and this is only available in 20 countries.”8

Nearly one in 10 lives in extreme poverty, says the United Nations. While widows have specific needs, their voices are often missing
from policies affecting them.

Such disregard can cut deeply, which one 49-year-old Nigerian discovered after her husband committed suicide in 2014. Four months after his death, Christiana came across his bones after searching through forests for three days. Afterward, his relatives summoned her and questioned her intensely, seeking evidence her husband did not die because of her witchcraft.

“They said that I killed my husband,” she told freelance reporter Orji Sunday, “and declared me a witch.” Sunday went on to chronicle how numerous Nigerian widows face similar challenges rooted in cultural practices. Many traditions force women to take an oath to prove her innocence when her husband dies.

“Others confine the widow in place for [a] specific mourning period and others shave her hair, yet others insist that the widow drink the water with which her late husband was washed. Some are given to the brother of the deceased,” Sunday wrote. “Legislation protecting widows is lacking in many states in the country, and in regions where the laws exist implementation is far from convincing.”9

Widows with child

The earthquakes in Nepal left this woman as a widow with young kids. Like many others in her nation, she doesn’t know how to start her life again.

Similar stories appear well beyond Africa. In Nepal, a middle-aged woman was blamed for her husband’s death in 2014. Five years later, people in her village accused her of causing the death of a buffalo and beat and tortured her.10

“This is a representative example of how a widow is mistreated and traumatized in the country, how widows are looked down upon and treated as inauspicious,” wrote Prakriti Sapkota in a 2019 report. “Widows are among the most vulnerable categories of people in the country.  The social stigma attached to them deprive them of their basic human rights and freedom of speech. They are [the] prey of physical and sexual assaults and harassments, accused of various sexual misdeeds and are socially marginalized.”

Photo collage of Widows

Widows like these from across South Asia need assistance to alleviate their difficult circumstances.

Persistent Superstitions

Many might think such marginalization only happened in centuries past, but these recent stories illustrate that ancient cultural customs, superstitions and prejudices persist. According to the Global Fund for Widows, not only do many nations prevent widows from inheriting her rightful assets when her husband dies, some allow women to become part of his estate.11

A widow with her son and his family

This widow is living with her son, and his family in West Bengal India. Her husband was killed by a tiger while working. Some widows even witness those attacks and experience post-traumatic stress disorder while grieving.

Such realities emphasize the need for International Widows Day, 15 years after the Loomba Foundation established the first observance to draw attention to widows’ experiences and galvanize more public support.

They are “stigmatized, shunned and shamed”12 the UN says. “And many of these abuses go unnoticed, even normalized. International Widows Day is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows.”13

Then there are the problems caused by war and other conflicts. To examine this, the UNHCR—the UN Refugee Agency—dispatched a reporter to Mosul, Iraq, near the end of the government’s three-year-long, on-and-off battle to overcome militant extremists.

The agency examined the impact of fighting, which continued long after the battle ended. Among the victims were Asmaa Mahmood, captured along with her husband and their two young daughters. Two weeks after their capture and separation, Asmaa learned her husband had been killed. As would be expected, she suffered from shock, psychological trauma and grief.

Policy reforms that can help address disadvantages to widows, the World Bank says, are regarding property ownership, inheritance rights, registration of customary marriages and widows’ pensions.

More than 900,000 fled after the final military operation began to retake the city in late 2016. At one camp operated by the UNHCR and its partners, female-headed households made up more than a quarter of the total: 1,250 out of 4,463 families.

Widows like 25-year-old Asmaa faced desperate straits. She hadn’t even told her children of their father’s death after arriving at the refugee camp, evading the truth by telling her girls he had been working and would soon return.

“I am so exhausted worrying about the future of my children,” she said. “Now I have no one to rely on. All I want is to provide a good living for my two daughters. I don’t worry about myself. I just don’t want my daughters to feel any different from other girls who have a father.”14

Widows in slum

These widows living in the slums of Mumbai gather together for support, prayer and practical assistance from the local pastors and Sisters of Compassion serving with GFA World.

Given such earth-shaking situations, the 2019 release of a widow-linked television series may seem like a trifling thing. Yet, despite the six-hour series being primarily an adventure tale, the airing of The Widow on Amazon Prime shows a symbolic consciousness of the situation.

Co-produced by Amazon and Britain’s ITV, the eight episodes drew a critical review in the influential The Atlantic magazine. Yet reviewer Sophie Gilbert noted star Kate Beckinsale gave the main character a “confidence in her action scenes that’s intermittently thrilling.”15 In real life, widows’ courage is indeed something to behold. While a TV mini-series highlights their plight before viewers, widows require real substantive action by governments, NGOs and individuals like you and me to help them survive financially and emotionally, even as they suffer through their grief.

Quiet Help

While International Widows Day places a spotlight on the problems facing widows, much of the work being done to alleviate their suffering and deprivation occurs in quiet ways.

As many as 63 million people—nearly one-fifth of the United States—were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade

In 2018, Gospel for Asia had 32 teams working across South Asia, where 22 percent of the global population of widows lives, to address widows’ specific needs.

In Asian cultures, many widows are seen as a curse and may be shunned by society, including close relatives.

The following facts show a sampling of what widows face in this part of the world:

Widows are often forcibly evicted from their homes and extended families by the husband’s family after his death.

Widows are often erroneously accused of having caused the deaths of their husbands.

Since widows’ education level is typically much lower, 19 million of them live in extreme poverty, earning less than $2 a day.

Remarriage by widows in this part of the world is low, so street begging or prostitution often becomes a way of life for younger widows.

Many widows are left to care for their children with little help from relatives.16 And sometimes children are forcibly removed from their moms.

When not removed, children from low-income families often have to enter the labor force to support their widowed mothers and other siblings.

Consider these practical examples of the impact of widowhood on real people in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia—home to 57.8 million widows.17 There’s Riya, who at 57 became shrouded by the shame of widowhood when her husband died from an unknown illness. Overwhelmed by sorrow and guilt, for three years she struggled to leave her bed.18

Then there is Prema, the mother of two young children who suddenly found herself widowed and without a source of income.19

And Amey, who struggled to overcome nearly insurmountable odds when riots touched her small village and those responsible tried to extort a fortune from her husband, a dry-fish vendor. When he refused, they killed him in his home. That left Amey with four children to raise by herself, forcing her to sell their belongings in a desperate struggle for survival. When she ran out of money and revived her husband’s business, her success sparked jealousy from other merchants, who harassed her and even tried to kill her.20

Amey and family

I had to go through lots of problems after my husband passed away,” Amey (above) recalled. “To protect my children, I had to sell my belongings ... Our economic situation went from bad to worse ... I was mentally drained …”

In each case, help from GFA workers brought light and hope and shared how much God loved and cared for them. Thanks to a GFA initiative teaching women to develop skills and become self-supporting, Prema learned how to sew and received a sewing machine to help her generate income. After a neighbor invited Amey to attend church, she and her daughters found the inspiration and support to start a new spice business.

I have no words to thank my Lord Jesus for the miracles that He has done in my life,” Amey says. “I am so thankful He has saved me and also protected me in order to be the strength for my daughters. Now we are living with God’s grace, and our lives have been blessed immensely.”21

Besides income-generating gifts, GFA supplies widows with clothing and other essentials, comfort, encouragement and the vital link of prayer support. GFA also maintains a website, www.mygfa.org, that equips those who want to conduct grassroots fundraising campaigns. Those funds help the poor, including widows, and equip missionaries in the most difficult areas of Asia—where millions have yet to experience His love.

Dr. K.P. Yohannan comforting widow

“The Bible says that true religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” Dr. Yohannan says. “The challenge facing the Church around the world today is to not just read the Bible, but follow its teachings.”22

These teachings apply the same today as they did thousands of years ago.

If you would like to do something now to help widows around the world, please consider one, or more, of the following ideas:

Social

Raise awareness of the plight of widows by sharing this article with your friends and family via social media, email or a link on your blog.

Interview a GFA World representative on this topic for your podcast or radio show. To facilitate that idea, email pressrelations@gfa.org.

Interview
Donate

Make a donation to help widows in Asia through a gift to GFA World.

Identify a widow that you know personally and invite her to lunch or dinner, with the goal to understand her and her needs better. Act on what you learn to make a difference for that one person.

Widow

Give to Help Widows

If this special report has touched your heart and you would like to do something today about the plight of widows around the world, please share this article with your friends and consider making a generous gift to GFA World to help widows in South Asia and other locations.



This ends the update to our original Special Report,
which is featured in its entirety below.


Ken Walker, author

Accounts of the humiliations, insults and indignations suffered by widows worldwide would make anyone cringe.

Gulika, a widow in Asia, experienced helplessness after the people in her village turned their backs on her after her husband’s death.

A woman in Nigeria was harassed by her brother-in-law asking for documents of her house before her husband’s body even left for the funeral home—and then insisted she had to leave.

Another Nigerian woman’s husband lay in a hospital bed when her sister-in-law demanded a huge amount of money from their bank account. When the wife refused, her in-law swore she would regret it.

“Three days after, my husband died, his family descended on me, took his cars away and emptied the house,” the widow shared.

In connection with last year’s International Widows Day, CNN spotlighted the cases of seven widows, ranging from a woman in Nepal to a widow in India to the spouse of a U.S. serviceman killed 12 years ago in Iraq. Their stories varied, but they faced the same plight: difficulties with grief and loneliness, forms of ostracism, financial struggles and hopelessness.

Santu Kamari Maharjan

Santu Kamari Maharjan of Nepal struggled greatly because she was a widow, until Women for Human Rights helped her and 14 other women start an agriculture business. Photo by Womankind Worldwide via CNN.com

The widow in Nepal, Santu Kamari Maharjan, then 55, had lost her husband to kidney failure years before. With young children to support, she had to work in people’s fields to clothe and feed them. (She had to sell her own field to pay for her husband’s medical treatment.) Her sisters-in-law would taunt her. As difficult as that was, then a serious earthquake in 2015 left her with no income—until the nonprofit Women for Human Rights helped her and 14 other women to build a bamboo shelter to start an agriculture business.

Grace Njeri Mwichigi

Grace Njeri Mwichigi, whose husband died in tribal violence in Kenya in 2007. Photo by Matt Maxwell via CNN.com

Grace Njeri Mwichigi became a widow after her husband was killed during tribal clashes in Kenya in 2007. The following months brought stress, confusion and fear, with much of the neglect and humiliation coming from family members. Purita Carlos of the Philippines lost her husband to lung cancer, which meant her fourth-grade son had to stop attending school while they stayed in Manila so she could learn how to earn a living.

“Being a widow is not easy,” Carlos told CNN. “It is very sad, and the pain of missing your husband is always there. I don’t want to go through the same experience again. That is why I would not ever remarry. It is enough that I have my son.”1

In other media coverage, headlines alone give an indication of the situation facing so many widows:

Afghan widows ‘would rather die’3

Agonies of widows hit by
harsh Nigerian traditions5

Stories of survival: Widows of
India’s farmer suicides4

USA: Social Security underpays
thousands of widows and widowers6

Kenya: Where becoming a widow is
the worst thing that can happen to you2

Widows Are at the Bottom of the Pile

Of the estimated 285 million widows in the developing world, more than 115 million live in abject poverty7. Eighty six million have suffered physical abuse, according to Cherie Blair, president of the UK-based Loomba Foundation, established in 1997 to empower widows and educate their children. In addition, 1.5 million children whose mothers have been widowed will die before they turn 5 years old. Considering the average widow has three children and six other family members, the wider impact affects more than a billion people, about one-seventh of the world’s population.

Cherie Blair

As president of the Loomba Foundation, Cherie Blair is on a mission to empower widows and educate their children.
Photo by foreignoffice on Flickr

“Their plight is one of the most important, yet under-reported, human-rights issues facing the world today,” says Blair. “Much has been made, and rightly so, of gender inequality, but widows have truly been at the bottom of the pile—visible and invisible—for too long. For many women, becoming a widow does not just mean the heartache of losing a husband, but often losing everything else as well.”8

Gospel for Asia reported on one widow named Gulika and her plight.9 While Gulika didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle, her husband, Manan, earned an adequate income working as a tailor. That all changed the day Manan hurried across some railroad tracks, unaware of the train just around the bend.

The sorrow of losing her husband was compounded by the reaction of others in her village in Asia. Believing Gulika was cursed, many feared that even passing by her on the street could bring them bad luck. Not surprisingly, Gulika fell into emotional despair. Still, she had to uphold her duties as a daughter-in-law, including retrieving water for the family. The nearest source was an old well a third of a mile walk from home.

A woman carrying water

Like this woman, Gulika walked long distances to gather water for her in-laws.

Collecting water was a grueling chore, and not just because of the lengthy walk. Women and girls feared going out alone because of the potential danger of men taking advantage of their vulnerability. Some days, Gulika faced harassment from her neighbors, and she didn’t always come home with enough water.

Gulika’s story has a happy ending: A Gospel for Asia-supported pastor arranged for a new water well to be drilled in front of her home.

Too often, however, widows don’t see relief from their suffering. So many women in various parts of the world have lost their husbands that the term “island of widows” has been applied to locations in Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and India.

Some of these women’s husbands have died from unknown chronic kidney disease (CKDu). First diagnosed among sugarcane workers in Chichigalapa, Nicaragua, it more recently spread to a coastal town in Andhra Pradesh, India. In a village of less than 3,000 people, at least 126 women have become widows by CKDu ailments, which have stricken farmers, coconut grove workers and fishermen.10

There are other concentrations of widows linked to a variety of causes. The city of Vrindavan in northern India, known as a holy city because of its numerous temples, has been labeled “the city of widows.” That’s because an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 widows live in the area, almost one-fourth or one-third of the city’s population of 63,000.11

The Sunderbans, a cluster of islands stretching from India to Bangladesh, contain several villages that are home to “Tiger Widows,” women whose spouses have been killed by tigers.

“They think we are evil,” said one woman who lost her husband to a wild animal. “People blame us for the death of our husbands.”12

A 'tiger widow' with her children; a man works in a forest known for its tigers

A "tiger widow" with her three children; a man works in a forest where tiger attacks happen often.

A Day for Widows Raises Awareness

In response to stories like these, the Loomba Foundation organized the first International Widows Day in 2005 to raise awareness of the problems of widowhood. The foundation selected June 23 for the observance because on that day in 1954 the mother of the organization’s founder, Lord Loomba, became a widow.

By the sixth year, 10 nations held observances. In December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted June 23 as International Widows Day, calling on member states, the UN system and other organizations to give special attention to the situation of widows and their children.13

Widowhood affects around one-seventh of the world's population

Considering the average widow has three children and six other family members, the wider impact affects more than a billion people, about one-seventh of the world’s population.

A series of reports tied to the day give further evidence of the difficulties facing widows:

In 2001, the UN had issued a report in which it said there is no group affected more by the “sin of omission” than widows: “They are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last 25 years.”14

The UN says widows in many countries often confront denial of inheritance, land rights and other forms of abuse; widows can be evicted from their homes and abused or even killed, sometimes by family members.

“In many countries, a woman’s social status is inextricably linked to her husband’s, so that when her husband dies, a woman no longer has a place in society,” stated the organization’s 2018 report on International Widows Day. “To regain social status, widows are expected to marry one of their husband’s male relatives, sometimes unwillingly. For many, the loss of a husband is only the first trauma in a long-term ordeal.

“In many countries, widowhood is stigmatized and seen as a source of shame. Widows are thought to be cursed in some cultures and are even associated with witchcraft. Such misconceptions can lead to widows being ostracized, abused and worse.”15

Netramani, a widow who has found hope despite difficult circumstances.

Netramani's entire family rejected her after her husband died, leaving her to find menial work to support herself. When she got too weak to work, she had no option but to beg on the streets.

A report released by the Loomba Foundation warned that the mistreatment of widows and women who have lost their partners produces systemic problems for societies. Unless governing powers actively safeguard the well-being of these women and their children, extreme beliefs and behaviors persist. In some nations, people commonly believe that widows caused their husbands’ deaths because of their own misdeeds in a previous life. Some cultures practice “cleansing,” where a widow is forced to have sexual intercourse with a man after her husband’s death to release her husband’s spirit.

The report explains the disturbing impact of such beliefs and practices: “Most of the most puzzling influences affecting widows are not examined by the societies that practice them, and without questioning them they remain secret, or in other cases where they are acknowledged they exist, through their normalcy, no one acknowledges the practices cause harm, therefore the practices exist in a kind of private realm nonetheless.

“Perhaps the most far reaching impact of widows’ insecurity is the impact this has on women and families to choose to focus most of their resources on the male members of the family. This means that boys get more health care and education than girls. Boys get this focus because women’s rights are not acknowledged in many societies so that women depend on men for economic and legal security.”16

Watch the story of Netramani in this excerpt from Gospel for Asia’s documentary "Veil of Tears", a film that reveals the desperate plight of women in Asia.

A Hidden Plight

If widows were gathered into one geographic location, they would make up the fourth-largest nation on earth. Yet, according to the Loomba Foundation, many people remain unfamiliar with reports about the situation facing widows, even though much of the research and analysis is not new. That’s because the evidence hasn’t moved beyond obscure books, academic journals and findings by international organizations. In addition to individual cases of extreme abuse, the Foundation argues, the structural causes of deprivation are “disturbing,” because these wider impacts affect society as a whole.

86 million

of the 285 million widows worldwide have suffered physical abuse

“Deprivation faced by widows therefore extends its destructive influence deep into the rest of society, and can be seen at work across large parts of the world,” the organization stated in its 2015 Global Widows Report. “Widows’ deprivation is therefore not simply about identifying one more category of people to be added to the poverty policy list. This latter point will obviously be of interest to governments, given that they rarely act because there is a moral need to do so—action happens because it helps achieve some other already prioritised objective.”17

Many governments could lessen pressure on widows by removing limits on women’s economic condition. Not only do widows often face the loss of land, income and poverty, but as females, many of them lack basic rights.

A 2016 report from the World Bank Group showed that 90 percent of 173 nations have at least one law limiting women’s economic participation, including constraints on their ability to inherit or own land.18

In response to that statistic, UN Women wrote in a 2017 statement, “Repealing these discriminatory laws is not only ethical, it is a mandate of the [UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals; the first target of Goal 5 is to ‘end all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere.’ ”

When Lalita’s husband died, she was left with four children and no income. She didn’t know where to turn or how to earn a living, and for three years she struggled to survive. After receiving a sewing machine from a Gospel for Asia-supported gift distribution, she now supports herself through a tailoring business.

UN Women points out the need to “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and other natural resources, in accordance with national laws. Action on these could impact the lives of millions of widows who are currently dependent on their husbands for their livelihoods.”19

The Loomba Foundation says that in significant portions of many developing nations, prevailing social norms and lack of a social safety net mean remarriage is in effect mandatory because single women’s existence is not accepted. This means many widowed women remain “hidden” and not recorded in official statistics.

Still, research has uncovered how serious conditions can become, especially in conflict-torn areas. In Rwanda, at least 13 percent of females are widows, with half of all husbands slaughtered during the genocide of the 1990s. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, sustained warfare left some areas with a widowhood rate as high as 40 percent. In Afghanistan, the United Nations Fund for Women has reported as many as 2 million war widows, well above 20 percent of the corresponding female population.20

Discrimination against women and widows negatively affects the entire society.

Research shows that discrimination against women and widows negatively affects the entire society.

“However, the countries with the highest percentage of widows among their female maritage populations are in Europe, where Ukraine leads with a rate of 19.2 percent,” the report says. “The Czech Republic has a rate of 13.6 percent, similar to post-genocide Rwanda, France has 12.2 percent. … Without further research on the living conditions of widows in under-studied countries, the widows’ issue will remain hidden in what are currently heavily aggregated poverty statistics.”

Fighting Tradition

The problem can’t be laid solely at government’s doorstep. Strong cultural traditions, customs and superstitions make turning back problems a long-term challenge. That is one reason why UN Women established the Fund for Gender Equality, a global grant-making body dedicated to economic and political empowerment for women. The fund provides both technical and financial support to innovative initiatives.

Since 2009, the fund has given grants totaling $64 million to 120 programs in 80 countries; in 2015 it awarded $7.3 million in grants to two dozen programs that are scheduled to be implemented by this year in six regions of the world. They will reach an estimated 325,000 beneficiaries—45 percent from low-income countries. Thus far, the agency says it has helped 23,000 women increase their incomes and another 3,000 gain leadership positions.21

Despite such initiatives, neither government nor non-governmental organizations can easily overcome cultural habits. In 1961, India passed a law against requiring a woman’s family from presenting her husband with a huge financial gift, known as a dowry. Yet, more than 50 years later, dowries are responsible for 80 percent of the outstanding bank loans in the South Asian country. As just one example, “Veil of Tears,” a documentary by GFA, interviewed one woman whose father was still making payments on a dowry loan years after her marriage.

A woman whose father spent years making payments on her dowry.

This woman’s father spent years paying off her dowry after she got married.

Because so many of these women lack an education or job training, some are often forced to work in low-skilled, backbreaking labor jobs paying the equivalent to US$1.50 a day. With 80 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people living in villages and rural areas, it is extremely difficult to overcome the superstitions and traditions that keep women in subservient conditions.

K.P. Yohannan

International Women’s Day (March 8) falls on the same day as GFA founder Dr. K.P. Yohannan’s birthday, so it’s no wonder that he’s passionate about uplifting the lives of women around the world.

“For millions of widows in Asia, life is incredibly difficult,” says Dr. K.P. Yohannan, founder and director of GFA. “Many are forced into begging or prostitution to survive. There are 46 million widows on the streets and in slums. There are stories of thousands of widows committing suicide because they have no hope.”

Another widow whose story was featured in “Veil of Tears” faced rejection from her husband’s family after he died. Her nephews refused to give her food, forcing her to beg from passing strangers. Once, when she got sick and suffered from diarrhea for two days, no one would even approach her. Members of a GFA-supported Women’s Fellowship took her to the hospital for treatment, provided her food and found her a home. Most of all, they became a family.

Grassroots Aid

Such caring action demonstrates one way to address widows’ situation: at the grassroots level. This is what GFA does through initiatives such as sewing classes, providing sewing machines and training in skills like candle-making and basket-weaving. Much of this outreach is conducted by Sisters of Compassion (women who are specially trained to care for marginalized groups), leaders of Women’s Fellowship groups and pastors’ wives. As women, they are more readily received into women’s homes in the segregated society.

Sisters of Compassion are specially trained to minister to marginalized groups

Sisters of Compassion are specially trained to minister to marginalized groups like widows, leprosy patients, and street children.

GFA-supported pastors and workers often help organize events to assist and encourage widows, too. For example, on or soon after last year’s International Widows Day, GFA-supported workers in many different regions distributed numerous sewing machines, goats, piglets, hygiene supplies, mosquito nets and other goods to help improve widows’ lives. They also offered encouragement and reminded them, “In the sight of God our Father, pure and blameless religion is helping the orphans and widows in their need” (see James 1:27).

That stirred reactions like one from Madhuri, a 35-year-old who is the only bread-earner for her children.

“I go house to house in search of work,” she said. “The piglet I received from you, I will rear nicely and hope it will [provide] a great income for my family. I am very thankful to you.”

Damini, a widow with five children, said, “I am very happy to get a piglet from the church. I never expected this type of help from the church, but I am lucky to receive the piglet.”

“In the sight of God our Father, pure and blameless religion is helping the orphans and widows in their need.” —James 1:27

In another area, a GFA-supported Women’s Fellowship gave sewing machines to 30 women.

“After my husband died, I was alone doing work in the tea garden and supporting my children,” said Upada, one of the recipients. “I am finding it so difficult to manage our family, but today I am so happy that the church has given me this gift. I believe that this sewing machine will greatly help our family.”

Another woman, Kanan, said, “After my husband’s death, there was no one to help me. I have three children and they are very small. The eldest child is going to school. I was finding life so difficult, but God took care of us and met our needs. … Through this sewing machine, I will try my best to earn money and support my children’s schooling and our family.”

When a church in another district gave 50 widows each a goat, it brought waves of gratitude. Lajita, one of the women who received a goat, told of her husband dying four years earlier because of asthma.

“I have three children who are going to school. I worked as a daily laborer in others’ fields,” she said. “Now, I will rear this goat at home, and she will produce milk. I hope my family’s condition will become better through this goat.”

A gift distribution for needy families

Income-producing gifts like those found in GFA’s Christmas Gift Catalog are game changers for widows in need.

Baijanti added, “My husband passed away some eight years ago. I stay with my children. We have no income-generating source, and this goat is going to be a great help for my living.”

An event in Nepal for International Women’s Day in 2017 prompted similar reactions. Thirteen churches organized a women’s conference, during which they provided pressure cookers to 60 widows.

A guest speaker, who had been a widow since age 15, distributed the gifts and encouraged participants.

“Being a widow, it is hard to be alone and at home in the society,” she said. “Today, many widows are abused by the family and the society. Therefore, I came forward to raise my voice and help them.”

American Widows Face Challenges

Even in the United States, widows don’t get a pass on life’s challenges. After Artis Henderson’s husband, Miles, died in November 2006 when his Apache helicopter crashed in Iraq, she spent the first year overwhelmed by grief. Without experiencing this kind of sudden tragedy, it’s hard for someone to know how difficult it is to cope when “everything in the world shifts,” she told CNN.

Artis Henderson and her late husband, Miles
Photo by Artis Henderson via CNN.com

“I always remember so clearly, this woman—another widow who was a little further, maybe six months ahead of me in the process—saying to me, ‘You will be disappointed to find out what happens after the first year,’” Henderson said. “And I remember saying, ‘Well, what happens?’ And she said, ‘There’s another year.’”22

Other widows report similar grief. At age 59, Ginny McKinney was out shopping with her husband, Dan, for a travel trailer for early retirement when he suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack at age 62.

“I took off for three months, driving a circle around Colorado,” McKinney told the New York Times. “I went to places in the wilderness and on the top of mountains, where I could stand outside and scream at the sky, and scream at God for taking my man. And scream at him for leaving me.”23

If the grief isn’t enough, what elderly widows may discover later can also inflict pain. In early 2018, an audit report from the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) inspector general’s office found the agency had underpaid nearly $132 million to more than 9,200 widows and widowers age 70 or older.

The issue stemmed from a budget bill in 2015, when Congress curtailed a strategy where one spouse could suspend a monthly benefit to allow the other spouse’s benefits to increase as long as the second delayed drawing theirs. However, it still allows a widow to claim survivor benefits and delay applying for her own. The SSA failed to inform widows and widowers to consider this option. The inspector general identified 13,555 people who were entitled to claim such benefits; a random sample showed that 82 percent could have drawn a higher monthly benefit if they claimed survivor benefits and held off drawing their own retirement.24

“I went to places in the wilderness and on the top of mountains, where I could stand outside and scream at the sky, and scream at God for taking my man. And scream at him for leaving me.”

However, the situation for widows in other parts of the world remains even more dire. For example, in a 2015 story, the India Times reported the majority of Indian widows are deprived of their inheritance rights, especially if they are childless or have only daughters. This happens despite a 1969 law that made women eligible to inherit equally with men.

Among other problems, widows in Asia may face:

  • Prohibition of remarriage
  • Being forced to follow certain mourning rites
  • Becoming victims of violence, much of it stemming from common accusations that they caused their husband’s death
  • Economic hardships25

Sharing Hope

Given this situation, Yohannan also believes the ultimate answer will be found from more women, regardless of where they live, learning who they are in Christ and what God thinks about them as individuals. Widows like Gulika have found hope when they learned that God treasures them.

K.P. Yohannan with a leprosy patient

"We must do everything we can to alleviate suffering and do whatever it takes to help people who are forsaken in their own communities." —Dr. K. P. Yohannan

However, Yohannan emphasizes the importance for Christ followers to provide practical assistance for widows and their children.

“God judged Israel because they did not care for the poor and suffering,” Yohannan says. “The Body of Christ is responsible to care for them. We must do everything we can to alleviate suffering and do whatever it takes to help people who are forsaken in their own communities.”

Obeying God’s command to take care of widows, GFA supports workers dedicated to ministering to widows all across Asia.

In 2017, GFA helped provided free health care training to 289,033 women, taught 50,624 illiterate women how to read and write, provided vocational training to 10,965 women desperately in need of a job, and gave out 8,763 sewing machines to vocational graduates, many of whom are widows struggling to survive. So, while widows worldwide face tragedy and discrimination, some are finding hope and a future through help from organizations like Gospel for Asia.

289,033

women received free healthcare training

50,624

women learned how to read and write through literacy classes

10,965

women received vocational training

8,763

sewing machines were given out to vocational graduates

To conclude on a positive note, here is a letter written by Dr. K.P. Yohannan to friends and donors of GFA about one widow’s journey from despair to joy:

When Kaavya’s husband died as a result of his alcohol addiction, she had to work hard as a daily wage laborer to feed her six children and look after her household. No one helped her because she lived in a society where people believed it is the wife’s fault if her husband dies before she does—regardless of the circumstances. In essence, she and her children were abandoned.

Kaavya and her children lived in a small, old hut, and life was a constant struggle for survival...

She could not afford to send even one of her children to school. However, she clung to the hope that when her oldest son, Bhumin, grew up, he would help her provide for the family.

Tragically, the young man followed his father’s footsteps instead and started drinking alcohol. Every day he fought with his mother and beat his siblings. Kaavya’s heart broke, and she didn’t know what to do. That’s when her younger son, Amraj, decided to find help from a stranger.

He went to see Pastor Gambheer, a GFA-supported pastor who served in the area, and explained to him their distressing family life... [Thereafter,] instead of abandoning Kaavya and her children like society did, he started to visit them and encourage them with God’s love and Good News. He and his congregation sincerely prayed for the family, especially for Bhumin. The family was surprised when, as an answer to prayer, Bhumin changed his destructive behavior. Even Bhumin himself saw his change as extraordinary.

Bhumin said to Pastor Gambheer, ‘I was on the wrong track. Now I want to commit my life into God’s hands.’

And he did. … From then on, God’s peace and visible blessing were upon their home.

Through the church, they were no longer abandoned. They had practical help, love and acceptance. In contrast to the shame Kaavya felt as a widow, she now felt honored and loved.

Kaavya cheerfully expressed her thanks to God for His goodness toward her and for the love and care of the believers for her family. She said, “I am a blessed widow.” This is indeed an amazing declaration from a precious woman who had suffered so much rejection and hardship in her life.

[Like Kaavya,] there are millions of young and old widows across Asia who are rejected, neglected or abandoned by their families because people believe their sins caused the death of their husbands. As just punishment, they are banned from all religious and social life, and their possessions, jewelry and property are taken away. They must wear white clothes and observe strict fasts and rituals. For many of these widows, the only way to survive is to beg on crowded streets and near temples.

And what if a husband abandons his wife and children? They face many of the same trials as widows. For all these women and children, their poverty and physical and emotional suffering are unspeakable. In addition, they are easy targets for exploitation, cheap labor and sex trafficking. …

The Widows Ministry, typically spearheaded by GFA-supported women missionaries, helps with the day-to-day needs of numerous widows—and their young children—in many communities. This ministry includes visiting with, encouraging and praying for widows and assisting them with food, clothing, warm blankets and other urgent needs. Women missionaries also take care of old and sick widows who can no longer beg and have no one to help them.

In addition, they teach adult literacy and tailoring classes that bring hope to widows and enable them to earn a living instead of begging. Together with the local churches, they arrange for these dear women to receive special gifts, such as chickens and goats, that will generate income.

It is GFA’s prayer to rescue thousands more neglected and abandoned women like Kaavya from a life of suffering and despair.

Read the rest of the letter from K.P. Yohannan

Give Towards the Widows and Abandoned Children Fund

If this special report has touched your heart and you would like to do something now about the plight of widows around the world, please share this article with your friends and consider making a special gift toward GFA’s Widows and Abandoned Children Fund.


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