United Nations International Widows’ Day
Question for Short Debate
Asked by Lord Loomba
30th June – 5.15pm: Lord Loomba to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure public awareness of United Nations International Widows’ Day.
Lord Loomba (LD): My Lords, International Widows’ Day is a UN-ratified global day for effective action to help widows and their children around the world, which takes place every year on 23 June. Since the UN adopted 23 June as International Widows’ Day in 2010, the UN Secretary-General has issued messages to all member states to raise awareness of the plight of widows, who suffer from poverty, illiteracy, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, conflict and social injustice. In his latest message, which was issued on 23 June this year, he urges an end to harmful practices and abuse against widows.
So that noble Lords understand the severity of the plight of widows, I will read a report on the Secretary-General’s message this year, which sums it all up:
“No woman should lose her status, livelihood or property when her husband dies, yet millions of widows in our world face persistent abuse, discrimination, disinheritance and destitution, stressed United Nation Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today in his message for this year’s International Widows’ Day.
In his message, the Secretary-General expressed his concerns about the number of widows subjected to harmful practices, including ‘widow cleansing’, often involving rape, and the increase in the widow’s risk of HIV infection, as well as ‘widow burning’.
Mr Ban underscored that such violent acts could also negatively affect the lives of their children. He has stressed the need for ‘stronger action to empower women, promote gender equality and end all forms of violence against women’.
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The UN General Assembly declared 23 June 2011 as the first-ever International Widows’ Day, and it has been marked annually ever since. The Day raises awareness and is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows worldwide and to bring the often invisible issues affecting them to a point of international concern.
In many cultures widows not only are considered inferior to their husbands, but they also become ‘useless’ at the moment of their husband’s death. Their social status appears to be inextricably linked to their husband’s, and when he dies, a woman is likely to lose her place in society, lose basic rights, and to become a victim of life-threatening abuses.
Millions of the world’s widows have to cope with poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill-health and different forms of discrimination, which could dramatically impact their physical and mental well-being.
‘It is our collective responsibility to safeguard the human rights and dignity of widows, in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child’, stressed the UN chief.
‘Together, we can eliminate the challenges faced by widows around the world and allow them to realize their potential as equal members of society”, he concluded”.
I declare my interest as founder and chairman of the Loomba Foundation, which I established in 1997 in memory of my late mother, who became a widow at the early age of 37. I was only 10 years old at that time, so I grew up as a widow’s son and saw first-hand the discrimination and prejudices faced by my mother. After realising that widows’ problems were huge in India and across Africa, I launched International Widows’ Day in 2005, which was adopted by the United Nations at the 65th UN General Assembly in 2010.
In south Asia, widows suffer because of stigma and religious beliefs, and in many countries they are considered to be evil and inauspicious people. They are uneducated, cannot find a job, and depend on their relatives and community, who abuse them physically, psychologically and sexually. They are deprived of their possessions, which means that they cannot pay to educate their children; many of them are driven to factory labour and prostitution to support their families.
In Africa, unjust “customary laws” persist in many communities, even when national laws and constitutions appear to proffer justice and equality. Apart from losing their wealth, widows can face degrading treatment and find it impossible to earn a living. The fate of widows magnifies the problems of poverty and disease.
Conflict has fuelled the crisis by directly creating huge numbers of widows in countries such as Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just a few. The widows who are left behind to care for their families have an essential role to play in the healing and reconstruction of their societies, but they are prevented from doing so by being destitute, disfranchised and disempowered. We cannot rest at peace if we let this situation continue further into the 21st century. The UN has given a clear mandate to all member states that widows must be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Governments should take action to uphold their commitments to ensure the rights of widows as enshrined in international law, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as I have said before. Even when national law
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exists to protect the rights of widows, weakness in the judicial system of many states compromises how widows’ rights are defended in practice. Programmes and policies aimed at ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages need to be undertaken, including in the context of action plans for the framework of post-millennium development goals.
In post-conflict situations, widows should be brought in to participate fully in the peace-building and reconciliation process to ensure that they contribute sustainable peace and security. We should empower widows through access to adequate healthcare, education, decent work, full participation in decision-making and public life, and lives free of violence and abuse. It creates opportunities for widows to help and protect their children and to avoid the cycle of perpetual poverty and deprivation.
In conclusion, I ask my noble friend the Minister to raise awareness of International Widows’ Day through DfID, UN Women, the Foreign Office and any other NGOs, as it is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition of widows, who have remained invisible, uncounted and ignored for a long time.
Lord Shipley (LD): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this short debate because it gives us an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the problems faced by so many widows across the world. More than 100 million live in poverty alongside some 500 million children, and I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, in doing so much to draw attention to their plight and for demonstrating such clear leadership on this issue through the Loomba Foundation.
I first became aware of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, a few years ago when I attended a fundraising event for the foundation, and I have been deeply impressed by the commitment of that foundation to alleviating the suffering of widows who face serious violation of their human rights.
As the noble Lord reminded us, 23 June this year was the 10th International Widows’ Day and it is a clear testament to his campaigning ability that the UN adopted it formally in 2010, on the resolution of Gabon, as an international observance day for widows to raise awareness of the need for change.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has identified many of the problems. Several stand out. First, in addition to 100 million widows living in poverty, around 1.5 million children of poor widows will die before they reach the age of five. Secondly, on losing their husbands, many widows lose their home because they cannot inherit property. They may be unable to remarry or they may have to marry their husband’s brother. They may be prevented from working and so have no means of supporting themselves or their children. They may be seen as unlucky within a family. They may face violence. They may face a lifetime of social exclusion.
In addition to the Loomba Foundation, I pay tribute to organisations such as Womankind, Women for Human Rights and Widows’ Rights International,
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which empower widows to live an independent life. They help them to overcome problems such as a lack of legal status, which can make the difference to their ability to inherit property, as well as getting access for them to other rights provided by the state, such as a widow’s allowance.
Evidence shows that educating the children of widows is an important means of empowering them to escape poverty. In addition, making widows self-sufficient economically through training and small amounts of business start-up capital or equipment has proved very successful, building their self-reliance and confidence.
What can the UK Government do? The Government’s aim should be to secure for widows the full protection of the law in their country, full rights to property ownership, equal rights generally and equal status within their families and communities. That aim should be integrated with the drive to achieve millennium development goals.
Intergovernmental agencies and individual Governments have been very supportive and work has been done by them to try to reduce poverty and reduce discrimination, but, crucially, this is not just an issue concerning the rights of women, because widows may not be treated as having the same status as women. This is a fundamental issue which International Widows’ Day is now addressing.
This debate asks Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure public awareness of United Nations International Widows’ Day. From my perspective, this is a human rights issue, so my question is: what might the Government do to bridge the gap between aspiration for change and achieving real improvements for widows in poverty? We have a substantial overseas aid budget, so how might we use our influence to effect change in attitudes which can discriminate so cruelly against widows?
We have a clear duty to provide leadership. I hope that the Minister may be able to indicate what practical measures could now be taken in support of widows across the world whose human rights are not being respected.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne (LD): I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this incredibly important topic. I pay tribute particularly to my noble friend Lord Shipley for his speech, and I endorse the points that he made more fluently than perhaps I would be able to do myself.
I work a lot with widows. I have always seen economic freedom as the key to widows gaining a new foothold in life. Of course, the law is crucial—they must be allowed to work in order to be able to find a way of working—but custom and practice are also crucial in implementing the law. If custom and practice are dramatically against you, it is extremely difficult to work and earn a living. When one looks at work, one has to think what sort of work they can do, how and when they will do it and what their alternative employment might be, and whether the source of work that a widow is allowed to do will in fact bring such a stigma on her family that carrying out that work may be something that she cannot even bear to do.
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I chair the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, and the women that I work with are trapped in continuing complex emergencies. For them, very often the only possible work that is immediately open to them is to become prostitutes, and once you become a prostitute it is extremely difficult to shake off that stigma again. I therefore work with those who are doing all that they can to create different kinds of employment for widows that would give them not just an immediate leg-up but a future.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords on all sides of the House that I intend to comment briefly on Iraq, where until last month there were 1 million widows and now, alas, there are considerably more, and there will be more next week and the week after. Human misery is rising as the result of the toll of 50 years or more of war, with the first tranche of widows coming as a result of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when 1 million people were killed and perhaps 250,000 were left widowed. I will also comment on the needs of the widows’ children. The figures in Iraq show that there are 4 million orphans. “Orphan” sometimes means the loss of both parents but in this context nearly always means the loss of the father, so I am going to comment on how that problem may be tackled as well.
The work that I believe is best for widows comes within a much wider programme. I would counsel against us picking out widows; we need to be helping the entire community so that our help for widows does not seem to stigmatise them by accident. Indeed, I think that work for widows should come from within the community itself because it must be permanent help; it cannot be short-term thing. There will be more widows tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. There has to be not just a safety net but a continuing programme of personal growth and development that enables women who are widowed not only to have a life for themselves but to have a proper one and something for their children, their elderly and anyone else they may be looking after.
The AMAR foundation works throughout Iraq. It works in Syrian refugee camps in the north and has a vast programme in Iraq for the prevention of gender-based violence, which, incidentally, is critical for working with widows. It runs a large programme on gender violence awareness through the radio and the internet, which is crucial. It runs a very big programme with women health volunteers, as well as an educated child initiative. It has mobile health centres, health posts, health clinics and road safety training. It works on the empowerment of widows throughout the country. Indeed, it is working in 16 of Iraq’s 18 governorates and currently employs more than 2,000 local professionals on projects across the country. A very large proportion of this work is for women, and a large proportion is therefore for widows and their children. We work through the 23 primary health centres that we have created, the six mobile health centres and some health posts, with about 500,000 patients connected with the primary health centres and the mobile health centres. Last year there were between 250,000 and 300,000 health consultations.
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Of course, if you look at that, women’s health is primarily the focus, as it is in all contexts everywhere. We take up about 80% of all health inputs and outputs in every society: pregnant women, pre- and post-pregnancy and so on, elderly women and, of course, the women at home. At the moment I think we visit 34,000 women at home every month; one-third of them are single parents, mainly widows. The mothers and children instructed during those visits number about 140,000 every month.
Turning to the widows and vulnerable women who receive skills training, in the past 12 months we have given 12,000 sessions of skills training, and 2,500 children have been enrolled in accelerated learning programmes through kindergartens and primary and secondary schools. We are teaching in 171 schools, seven kindergartens, three universities, 12 of our own training centres and, most importantly, five prisons, where you will find more women and more widows, because they are so vulnerable. The programme being run at the moment aims to integrate 1,000 widows and female heads of households into Iraq’s social and economic fabric by empowering them with skills, qualifications, social support and employment opportunities, and by increasing their rights—and their knowledge of their rights—as Iraqi citizens.
One of those important points is to help those women to find what is available to them from the Government; for example, there is a widow’s stipend. Only a small proportion of widows in Iraq get that stipend, because most widows there cannot read and write, so they do not know that it is available to them. A key thing is to teach widows literacy and numeracy. We have a very important programme that teaches adult literacy and numeracy to about 7,000 adults a week, of which a proportion are widows. I strongly highlight literacy and numeracy, which are absolutely crucial. That is one of the first steps to take when you think about widows.
On access to employment opportunities, my noble friend Lord Shipley and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, mentioned the Government and the international community. In order to get those widows known about, we create access to employment opportunities by involving businesses, government, parliamentary committees and academic institutions in the project itself. That means that bit by bit those ladies become known, and their opportunities emerge because of that.
We teach practical skills, assisting them to set up their own businesses. The practical skills, apart from literacy and numeracy, are sewing and design, food preparation, hairdressing, IT, English language for business, and human rights—the latter so that they know what is theirs by right. We teach English language because with that you have the globe, and IT because you can get into the internet. However, the practical skills are ones that they have confidence in themselves. They know that they can do hairdressing—they are taught how to do it so that it can become a business. They know that they can cook and do nursing.
Therefore, the programme does the full range of training courses, all integrated with the Ministry of Education’s own education opportunities, and it is
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seen as a highly successful programme. I also suggest that no programme can succeed for widows or for any other section of the community unless it is sustainable. As part of the programme, we have heavy-duty monitoring work, but on top of that we have a sustainability programme. So far, we have been steadily raising funds locally—not necessarily here, although we have done some here—to enable this project to continue in perpetuity.
That is a very small example of programmes globally that I know many other wonderful organisations are carrying out. However, I have put it in front of your Lordships in the hope that it may provide an example of a simple but highly effective way of working.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate and for his strong commitment to the empowerment of widows. It is only because of his commitment that we have International Widows’ Day. As we have heard, over the past 16 years the Loomba Foundation has lobbied the UN and Governments, and has succeeded in being heard. In 2005 the foundation launched 23 June as International Widows’ Day and the UN adopted it in 2010. It gives us an opportunity to raise awareness and focus on action to bring the often invisible issues affecting widows to international attention.
In every society, women have endured exclusion from their communities and families, have suffered the loss of their homes, livelihoods and identities, all brought on by an event completely out of their control: the death of a husband—their life partner. Fifty years ago, my own mother was left a widow with four dependent children. Like the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, I was 10. We lived in a house tied to my father’s job. In a very short period, she had to cope not only with the grief of losing her husband but the loss of our home, family income and status. Her determination to keep us together meant facing a court hearing to be rehoused following our eviction and quickly finding a job to maintain a household.
Since then, we have seen progress in this country, with legislation for equal pay and against sex discrimination. Those changes in the law enabled my mother to become an economically active individual rather than dependent on the state—an issue so ably highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson. Today, widows in the West still face social isolation and commonly live with severe insecurity and poverty due to lack of employment. Persecution of and abuse against widows and their children is not a crisis limited to the developing world: large groups of widows can be found in those circumstances in Europe, including Russia, and central Asia.
Global research commissioned by the Loomba Foundation in 2009 revealed that 245 million widows and more than 500 million children suffer in silence worldwide. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, highlighted, more than 100 million widows live in poverty, struggling to survive. Many of these women and their children are malnourished, exposed to disease and, in some cases, subject to slavery. Widowed women experience targeted murder, rape, prostitution, forced marriage, property theft, eviction and social isolation.
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As we have heard, today there are many more widows than ever before due to armed conflict, the AIDS pandemic and the age difference between partners, with many young women being married off to much older men. As we have heard in previous debates, among the survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were thousands of women widowed during the conflict. In some parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, around 50% of women are widows. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said, there are estimated to be millions in Iraq who have been placed in that situation, and 70,000 in Kabul, in Afghanistan.
In post-conflict situations, high numbers of children depend on widowed mothers—often young women, sometimes children themselves—as their sole support. The response of agencies such as UN Women has been to work in countries such as Rwanda, Pakistan and Afghanistan to advance widow’s rights—we have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, talk about Iraq—through targeted programmes as part of their work to support women’s economic empowerment, political leadership and participation and, more importantly, a role in peace and security.
As the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted, Ban Ki-moon said last week when marking the 2014 International Widows’ Day that we need,
“stronger action to empower women, promote gender equality and end all forms of violence against women”.
Violence against women is one of the most widespread violations of human rights, affecting women of all backgrounds, ages, cultures and countries. Widows are no exception and may in fact be at particularly high risk of violence. In many countries, but particularly across Africa and Asia, widows find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence, including sexual abuse, related to inheritance, land and property disputes.
Last year, in a speech to the House of Lords, Lakshmi Puri said that the lack of reliable hard data remains one of the major obstacles to developing the policies and programmes to address the poverty, violence and discrimination suffered by widows. There is a need for more research and statistics disaggregated by marital status, sex and age, to help to reveal the incidence of widow abuse and illustrate the situation of widows.
Empowering widows through access to adequate healthcare, education—highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson—decent work, full participation in decision-making and public life and lives free from violence and abuse would give them a chance to build a secure life after treatment. Importantly, creating opportunities for widows can also help to protect their children and avoid the cycle of intergenerational poverty and deprivation.
At this point, I again pay tribute to the Government and, in particular, the Foreign Secretary, for leading the international community through hosting the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. I welcome the Government’s support for initiatives that support widows through broader programmes working on women’s empowerment, asset ownership and inheritance and, through that, the targeting of cash
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transfer programmes. I should like to hear from the Minister how she believes such programmes are progressing and whether she can highlight those that we know are working more effectively and update us on their extension.
In a recent debate, I raised the conclusion of this year’s session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which I believe can make a significant contribution to this debate. The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequality in today’s world. Gender-based violence, taking many forms, is a major element of that massive and continuing failure of human rights. What specific actions have the Government formulated to carry through the declaration and decisions of the New York meeting and to face up to the challenges identified by the commission both domestically and internationally?
Today’s debate is about our joint efforts to erase the stigma of widowhood, the barriers widows face to resources and economic opportunities to survive and the high risk to widows of sexual abuse and exploitation. I know from personal experience that widows are more than victims: they are mothers, caregivers and heads of households. They are the drivers of change, with their own aspirations and their own voices that need to be heard. Women’s empowerment and the protection of women’s rights are our greatest weapons to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls—widows in particular.
Baroness Northover (LD): My Lords, this has been a very moving debate. We have heard the direct experiences of both my noble friend Lord Loomba and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and their situations with their own mothers in widowhood and their families. I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for securing this debate, and noble Lords for their participation and the contribution that they have made in this area. My noble friend’s foundation has very much led in this area, and I pay tribute to him for that.
My noble friend rightly emphasises the message of the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, that around 23 June International Widows Day should be a time for raising awareness of the plight of widows, and noble Lords have contributed very effectively to that. For millions of women and children, the death of a husband and father can all too quickly trigger a descent into poverty, social exclusion and rape or other forms of violence. The effect on children has been powerfully described by my noble friend Lord Shipley. When a husband dies, many countries do not recognise that the widow has any rights to inherit what he has left behind. A widow and her children may find themselves not only homeless and without an income overnight but perceived as an economic burden to their community and stigmatised due to their association with death. Widows suffer from double discrimination both for being female and for being widows. As I said, my noble friend Lord Loomba has very close personal experience of the dreadful disadvantage that widows face. We also heard about that from the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
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Harmful traditional practices see widows forcibly married, raped, traded or exiled. Underlying this abhorrent situation are discriminatory social norms against girls and women. These deeply held prejudices keep girls and women locked out of education, jobs and the community, and condone horrific forms of physical and psychological violence. That is why my noble friend Lord Shipley is right to locate the treatment of widows within basic human rights.
My noble friend Lady Nicholson is right with her emphasis on the importance of economic freedom of widows, and I pay tribute to her for her work. We know well that the economic position of women is often key to their status and independence, and underpinning that, as she indicated, is support for health and education, including skills training. She is right that the focus may need to be on the relief of poverty so that we do not further stigmatise widows. I hope that she will be reassured that DfID’s A New Strategic Vision for Girls and Women identifies economic empowerment as one of the four key pillars for action.
As many noble Lords know, preparations for a post-2015 development framework are under way, and my noble friend Lord Loomba rightly emphasised its significance. We want to ensure that the new framework is focused on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and we recognise that within that group no one should be left behind—that is key to this. I should flag up that we are well aware that conflict and fragile states are likely to affect women and girls disproportionately, and of course DfID is a major contributor to humanitarian relief. Thus in the latest conflict in Iraq we are providing £5 million to reach 140,000 displaced people with lifesaving assistance. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Loomba referred to other conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan and many other areas. We are acutely aware that women and girls are often disproportionately the victims in these conflicts.
The post-2015 development framework seeks to address those who have been left behind and have not yet been brought into the kind of situation in which many of us in our society find ourselves. We are working hard to ensure that the new framework includes a standalone goal on gender equality, as noble Lords will know, with a holistic set of targets that address the root causes of the inequality and discrimination that affect widows. These include eliminating violence against women and girls; promoting women’s economic empowerment; fostering girls’ and women’s leadership and participation; ensuring universal sexual and reproductive health and rights; and improving girls’ education.
Achieving the targets will mean that a widow will not lose everything when she loses her husband. She will be able to own her own home, start a business, access finance and challenge the prejudices that discriminate against her. This in turn will improve the life opportunities for her children. My noble friend Lord Shipley was right to emphasise the importance of educating the children of widows as they seek to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, as we have seen successfully being done.
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The UK Government are leading the way in raising public awareness to end the discriminatory social norms that are at the heart of the plight of widows. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his tribute to the leadership of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. As he knows, this was co-hosted by my right honourable friend and Angelina Jolie. The organisation Widows for Peace through Democracy organised a series of events, including a play entitled “Hidden”, depicting the lives of women and child victims of wartime sexual abuse. There was also a discussion around justice for widow victims of conflict. I hope that my noble friend Lord Loomba was able to hear reports of what they discussed.
Next month, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for International Development and the Home Secretary will host with UNICEF the Girl Summit to rally world leaders, organisations and the public to seek to bring an end within a generation to child marriage, early marriage, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, an area in which my honourable friend Lynne Featherstone has led as the Government’s champion for combating violence against women. Ending discrimination against girls and women, which underpins the many forms of violence against them, is critical not only as a human right but in unlocking their full potential. This is important across all stages of life, including for those who are widowed.
I can assure noble Lords that DfID works to support widows in the poorest countries. For example, in Rwanda, which was cited by my noble friend Lord Loomba and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, DfID is supporting 2,500 widows who are also HIV positive to ensure that they receive psychological support as well as support to improve their incomes. DfID’s support to the Government of India’s national AIDS control programme has resulted in a reduction in the age eligibility for widows’ pensions in some states from 60 years to 35 years to make them accessible to younger widows.
In conclusion, I want to stress the importance of a continued partnership between government, civil society, the private sector, foundations and of course the public. I welcome the extraordinary efforts of my noble friend Lord Loomba to establish International Widows’ Day. The collaboration between the Loomba Foundation and UN Women is a great opportunity to expand outreach and awareness about widows. As one of the largest core funders to UN Women, the UK through DfID supports the partnership between UN Women and the Loomba Foundation. UN Women plays a critical role in taking forward what is decided at CSW. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, was right to flag the importance not only of taking forward what is agreed at those meetings but of stopping things moving backwards. In many areas around the world, we see a real challenge in that area. The United Kingdom is well aware of that challenge and we welcome the fact that there is tremendous cross-party support for countering it. That is extremely important.
I assure my noble friend Lord Loomba and other noble Lords that we recognise the dire situation of many widows. It is surely only through a combined
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effort that we can achieve real gender equality and empowerment for all girls and women, including widows. This has been a moving debate that has brought home the reality of the position that women so often find themselves in if they are widows. I
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therefore thank all participants for all that they are doing to help such widows, and the Government support them in that.
Committee adjourned at 6 pm.