Widowhood and armed conflict: challenges faced and strategies forward


Workshop on Widowhood organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Australian Red Cross, at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, November 1999.

Selected issues faced by widows in armed conflict


The proliferation of armed conflicts, and the high levels of military and civilian casualties, have resulted in a large number of widows in many countries. This has a major impact not only on the women themselves but on society in general.

Widowhood often changes the social and economic roles of women in the household and community, besides altering the structure of the family; its impact differs according to culture and religion, however. Widowhood can affect the physical safety, identity and mobility of women and children. It can also affect their access to basic goods and services necessary for survival, and their rights to inheritance, land and property, in addition to the wider impact it has on the community. Women whose husbands have " disappeared " or are missing have many of the same problems as widows but without official recognition of their status. In addition, they have to deal with the psychological effects and insecurity that stem from not knowing their husband's fate, and with direct consequences such as not being able to bury their loved ones and not being able to remarry.

When they lose their husbands, widows are often deprived of support from traditional sources, which can cause economic hardship or deprivation. Furthermore, they often feel unable to talk about their loss, as they fear ostracism and other punishments. This is particularly so if the death of the man is associated with, or perceived to be associated with, an opposition group of the armed conflict or political violence, since the wido w can be extremely vulnerable to intimidation, violence or abuse, or even repudiation by society. As a result, widows grieve in silence often with the added burden of raising a family. Those with dependent children often say that their main reason for going on with in life is the responsibility of raising their children. These children, particularly girls, may themselves be subjected to discrimination and unfair treatment because of their mother's status.

In some cultures, a widows is responsible for her late husband's dependants; in others, she is taken in by his family. The situation can become desperate for those who must assume responsibility for dependent family members. Furthermore, social traditions may be abandoned by families so overburdened with economic hardship resulting from war that they can no longer cope, or by families that no longer see themselves as under any obligation toward the widow, for example, when the link between the family and the woman has been severed by the death of the son.

Women can be left entirely without social status when they lose their husbands, especially in patriarchal societies. The death of the main breadwinner can cause a breakdown in the familiar division of labour because women take over roles traditionally carried out only by men. Women can face extra difficulties as heads of households if they do not have an adequate educational background or are prevented from obtaining further education; this can, for example, restrict their capacity to find work. Moreover, in countries where land ownership is regulated by customary laws or cultural barriers, women often do not have the right to own land and property; where a conflict has led to the destruction of traditional coping mechanisms this may lead to widowed women becoming homeless and unable to support themselves and their dependants.

War often leads to a reduction in social welfare services, or even to their comp lete destruction. In the absence of such services, international humanitarian organisations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental organisations play a major role in assisting vulnerable groups, including widows. The ICRC has a long history of bringing assistance and protection to the victims of armed conflict. Historical records indicate that one of the first acts was to help needy widows in the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s. The ICRC continues to assist and protect widows throughout the world in given contexts where they have been identified as particularly vulnerable. Without such assistance, widows might find themselves either totally reliant on the goodwill of family, friends or neighbours, or alone and faced with the necessity of providing for themselves and their family.

Women across the world have shown commendable courage, resourcefulness and resilience in carrying on despite the trauma of their loss, the isolation imposed by being widows and the difficult tasks of earning a living and protecting themselves and their dependent family members. Such women are challenging, and in some cases redefining, the cultural and social perception of widowhood and its former boundaries. For the first time, a woman could have the possibility to work outside the home, be the breadwinner, main decision-maker and head of household, and to organise with other women and go into areas of public life that had been the preserve of men.

ICRC Workshop on Widowhood

As part of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in November 1999, the ICRC organised a workshop entitled " Widowhood and armed conflict: challenges faced and strategies forward " . The aim of the workshop was to gain a better understanding of the problems faced by widows during armed conflict and its aftermath. It also aimed to identify and further examine the coping strategies and the ways that programmes of assistance and protection can best take into account the long-term needs of widows for self-sufficiency and self-reliance, as well as their existing responsibilities and workloads. Contributions and recommendations gained from this workshop have been integrated into the ongoing ICRC Study on women affected by armed conflict. This Study will enable the ICRC to formulate guidelines aimed at better addressing the protection and assistance needs of women affected by armed conflict, and ensure that the ICRC assists them appropriately.

The workshop was chaired by Mr Martin Bell, independent Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Presentations were given from a range of countries highlighting the realities faced by many widows across the world. An underlying theme was that widows need to be listened to and encouraged to unite into groups. They should not be seen as a threat simply because they are outside the normal social order. Widows need to be enabled to participate fully in the social, economic and political reconstruction of a country. This requires that they benefit from civic education, literary programmes, vocational training and support for small business ventures.

Constructive suggestions to better assist or support widows were as follows:

  • the need to search for the missing, and the need for a policy related to exhumations;

  • to determine the number of widows affected by armed conflict in order to assess the scale of the problems that affect them;

  • to recognise the importance of psycho-social counselling, emotional support and empowerment;

  • to identify the problems of widowhood and the thematic links with other issues such as street children and child soldiers;

  • to recognise the need for moral redress and material compensation on the part of the State;

  • to enact adequate national legislation to protect and assist widows, in particular be establishing, or ensuring respect for, their rights to land and inheritance;

  • to provide legal education and representation;

  • to implement long-term assistance programmes that take into account widows'specific skills and needs, with the aim of helping them to achieve greater self-sufficiency and dignity; 

  • to take into account widows and their needs when peace-keeping or peace-enforcement operations are taking place, and to be aware of the likelihood that such operations will be increasingly prevalent; and

  • to explore the potential for a women's ombudsman in countries where the State has not fulfilled its responsibilities.

The following is a brief summary of the key presentations made during the workshop:

 A Representative of the "Red Cross in Bosnia-Herzegovina": The displacement, death and disappearance of so many people as a result of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has changed the demographic structure of certain regions. Many women have lost their husbands and breadwinners, and the number of children without a father is ten times higher than before the war. One of the most serious consequences of the war is the high number of missing persons, and the distress and uncertainty caused by not knowing the fate of loved ones. Although widows do receive assistance from both governmental and non-governmental organisations, it is limited and sporadic. The war's destruction of the economy and social welfare services has put women in a difficult position, as th ey are economically dependent and have few means available to generate income. Widows need to be able to achieve self-reliance through full participation in society.

 A representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): UNHCR highlighted some of its activities in support of women, and particularly widows, in post-conflict situations. Reference was made to a recent evaluation of the Bosnian Women's Initiative and how lessons learned through this programme can be used in other such initiatives.

 A representative of the Red Cross Society of Panama: The situation of widows in Central America in general, and Panama in particular, is such that the application of even the existing norms to protect and assist women is doubtful because of the weakness of the economies and the number of potential beneficiaries. In Panama, the success of the campaign by the widows of soldiers contrasts with the problems faced by widows of civilians who did not organise in the same way. The situation in Guatemala, where a non-international conflict has left 100,000 widows, was also considered. To contend with the legal, economic, moral and social problems faced by so many widows, many organisations have been created that aim chiefly to locating those unaccounted for. This presentation concluded by identifying some aspects that must be dealt with in order to meet the personal and social needs of widows. 

 The Public Health Advisor of the Health and Relief Division, ICRC: a brief overview was given of some of the ICRC's activities which directly assist widows. For example, food and non-food assistance distributed directly to more than 14,000 families headed by widows in Afghanistan; emergency assistance of food, soap, blankets, mattresses and seeds to rece ntly widowed women and their children in Tajikistan; ad hoc food distributions on the basis of vulnerability to war widows in Azerbaijan, Peru, Indonesia; clothing assistance for children of widows in Sri Lanka; and assistance through the physical rehabilitation programme providing prosthesis fittings and physiotherapy to widows with amputations in Iraq.

 A representative of the Somali Red Crescent Society: The conflict in Somalia, which has been rooted in traditional clan rivalries, has killed an estimated half million Somalis and displaced tens of thousands of people, mainly women and children. Many women were widowed or do not know the fate of their husbands, who are missing or who disappeared as a result of the conflict. The war led to high unemployment affecting every household; this in turn has resulted in an erosion of the traditional support given to widows by the community. Widows and their children are often left to support themselves. The Somali Red Crescent has initiated a project to make credit available to women affected by the war. More than 300 widows or husbandless households have benefited from loans to improve their living conditions.

 A representative of the Cambodian Red Cross Society : After years of war in Cambodia, there is no longer rigid adherence to traditional gender roles and responsibilities. Today, 25.8% of households are headed by women as a result of the husband's death or long absence due to military service. Cambodian women have suffered the loss of family, houses, cooking utensils, agricultural tools, cultivated land and animals. They have faced extreme poverty and physical danger. From one day to the next, physical and economic survival became the dominant issue in most women's lives. The change in the country's demographics has led to a lack of educational achievement, poor health conditions, underemployment and lack of access to credit. A high proportion of the female population is living in poverty. To overcome the cultural constraints of Khmer society, legal and policy initiatives directly targeting the inclusion and participation of women in all aspects of the country's reconstruction and development are essential.

 A representative of the World Food Programme (WFP): WFP outlined some of the preliminary results obtained from a gender-differentiated study carried out in Cambodia, and WFP's Gender Action Plan for 1999-2000. This study showed that women who head households are " four times poor " (i.e. poor in social power, labour power, material wealth and physical energy), are stigmatised as widows, are rarely consulted about their needs and face additional obstacles in participating in food-for-work programmes.

 A representative of the Lebanese Red Cross Society: The effects of widowhood - physical, social and economic - and the impact that these have on the women themselves were outlined. Uncertainty about the future, the possibility of facing family violence or ostracism, the struggle to maintain family life, and economic hardship can all be consequences of widowhood. The Lebanese Red Cross ran two special programmes to assist war widows during the 1980's. These programmes - bread-making by widows and chicken breeding - were explained. The experience gained from these programmes leads the Lebanese Red Cross to believe that assistance needs to be given in the form of complete social and economic programmes, which fully comply with the culture and characteristics of each country.


 A representative of Empowering Widows in Development (a non-governmental organisation in the United Kingdom): Social reconstruction is a priority issue which is often ignored in the context of widowhood. With the extended family - traditionally often the source of support - either dead or missing, widows and their children are in need of priority assistance. Above all, aid organisations must listen to what they say. Mechanisms must be put in place to protect widow's human rights, to make them aware of their rights and to integrate them into the new post-conflict economy in order that they may fully participate in civil society and raise their children.


 The Policy Advisor on Women and War, ICRC: The ICRC read out its Pledge given to the 27th International Conference. This pledge focuses on women affected by armed conflict.

Ref. LG 1999-217-ENG