CANBERRA — At the Australian Council for International Development’s 2017 National Conference, a key theme will be engaging in action and advocacy for change. Lily Thapa, founder of the Nepali NGO Women for Human Rights, aims to inspire the development sector in attendance to address the violations of widows in South Asia, an issue largely overlooked by developed countries in the region.
In the leadup to the conference, Thapa, who advocates for the rights of widows in her country, spoke with Devex about her work, the need to see protecting the rights of widows as key to achieving the SDGs, and the call to action she will be making to Australia’s NGOs.
From firsthand knowledge of inequality to action and advocacy
“I have been engaged in the widow’s movement [for the] last 20 years,” Thapa told Devex. “I started working for the rights of widows after I personally became a widow at a young age and faced many challenges in the name of culture and religion.”
After 20 years of advocating for change, WHR now operates throughout Nepal in 73 districts and supports over 100,000 single women members. Its model encourages action from the grassroots to the international level.
In Nepal, Thapa explained, widows face abuse, discrimination, and harassment. They are deprived of many social and economic rights, including property. “There are many cases of young widows being vulnerable and victimized both sexually and emotionally within the family and in the communities,” she said. “Religious, cultural values and social norms set for the widows further prohibits them in taking part in any family or public activities, particularly if it’s an auspicious one.”
Natural disasters, conflicts, diseases, and poverty are factors creating a growing number of young widows in Nepal who Thapa is working to support by addressing the social challenges they face. This includes calling widows “single women” due to the negativity associated with a woman whose husband has died.
“Initially it was very challenging to bring widows out from house to join the group because of social stigma and due to families. But now, because of the impact of group mobilization in the villages, it has become [easier],” Thapa said. “The widows' movement has gained a good momentum with a lot of positive outlook and support to the cause. Yet there is still [a] long way to go to change the stereotype mindsets of the people against widowhood, which is the most difficult part to do away with.”
In Nepal, Thapa and WHR are creating change by addressing that social stigma, including at the national policy level, by mobilizing their members as change makers in their communities and actions such as the Red Color Movement.
Due to the group’s mobilization in communities, Thapa said, families have started accepting the rights of their widowed daughters and daughters-in-law to do things such as wearing colorful clothes, participating in more social activities, and seeing and presenting themselves as valuable members of society.
The political and economic need for social change is being further driven by the numbers.
The 2010 national census showed that more than two-thirds of widows were between 20 and 35 years of age and responsible for three to four children. But more than four out of five widows are illiterate, impacting their earning ability as well as the education and health of their children.
“The dropout rate from school after a father’s death is extremely high among the children of widows,” Thapa said. “And many daughters of widows find themselves married young.”
At the political level, widows are also making an impact. Recent local elections in Nepal were described by Thapa as a “milestone in the engagement of women in the political process.” Despite being marginalized in society, widows were nominated as candidates by a number of parties, with some even winning. “WHR is planning to empower and capacitate those elected widows and other widows so that they can influence and work for the rights of widows at policy level.”
Encouraging global action
Despite the geographic focus of Thapa’s work on Nepal, the country is not unique in its social and economic barriers for widows.
“It is very important to build awareness globally since it is estimated that there are at least 285 million widows of all ages around the world, with over 115 million living in deep poverty,” Thapa said. “The poorest widows are those living in rural areas, victims of drought, floods, and climate change without any social support. They are desperately struggling to survive and nurture their children.”
She said their numbers are increasing globally due to armed conflicts, diseases, natural disasters, and harmful traditional practices such as the marriage of underage girls to far older men.
“Widows in the rural areas of developing countries — especially in Africa and South Asia, where many women and girls are illiterate — are particularly at risk of human rights abuses,” Thapa continued. “They are ignorant of their rights and unable to access an independent justice system to protect them from discrimination and violence.”
With targets for the Sustainable Development Goals including a focus on ending discrimination against women and girls and on providing women with equal rights and access to economic, training, and work opportunities, Thapa said, the need for global support and action to support this at-risk population is urgent.
“We want to ensure that widowhood issues are mainstreamed in all the SDGs so that no widow is left behind,” Thapa said. “To achieve the SDGs we should acknowledge and support widows groups across regions. And we are lobbying the United Nations to appoint a special representative reporting on the status of widows in selected countries and commission a special report on the issues of widowhood in developing and conflict-afflicted countries.”
Lily Thapa will be a keynote speaker at the 2017 ACFID National Conference, which Devex is supporting as a media partner. Follow the conference on November 1 and 2 using the hashtag #ACFID2017.
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