When a person loses their spouse or partner we refer to this as widowhood. A woman who loses her husband is a widow and a husband is referred to as a widower. Depending on the strength of the bond and the length of the relationship this can be a devastating loss. There are many stories of couples that lived together for forty plus years and when one dies the other often follows within a year or less. People develop close relationships over a lifetime.
Widowhood carries with it a host of other problems that confuse and complicate the grief process especially for women throughout the world.[i]
According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)[ii], the American Association of Retired People (AARP), and the World Health Organization (WHO), Latin America and the Caribbean are not subject to contradictory plural legal systems. The “Machismo” or male chauvinistic climate keeps women in subordinate roles.[iii] With widowhood the low status of women only worsens. Poverty increases and loneliness, low self-esteem, and isolation become paramount as issues affecting survival.[iv] In Latin America and the Caribbean widowhood disturbs cultural identity as traditional ways of life become fragmented and family systems disintegrate.[v]
Ken Tout cites a number of studies in his book on ageing in developing countries. He notes, “But in mass it is elderly women who are most likely to suffer problems accruing not only from a current state of abandonment but also from earlier disadvantage.”[vi]
In a United Nations report of 2005 the following finding was reported,
In South Asia, widowhood is viewed not as a period of the life cycle of a woman, but as a personal social aberration, to be devoutly wished away. This attitude to a great extent governs the social, cultural, and even economic implications of widowhood. Widows are invisible; or rather society keeps them so. Above all a widow is doubly traumatized as a woman and as a widow. She is victimized as a woman and because she is a woman she is marginalized as a widow.[vii]
In India and Nepal, within Hindu society, a woman who is a widow is considered physically alive but socially dead. In most third world countries society and culture orient around men, husbands, and sons. Widowhood for the woman is a dangerous enterprise. In India, a now forbidden ritual referred to as Sati[viii] (or Suttee) involves the burning of widows. Following the death of her husband a widow was expected to throw herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Sati was considered a form of suicide related to preserving honor and demonstrating loyalty to her deceased spouse and his family.
Millions of widows throughout the world endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health, and discrimination in both law and custom.[ix]
Widows in developed countries are more likely to be elderly whereas widow in developing countries may be young or old. One of the consequences of wars, the world over, is that of increased numbers of widows. Women who have been widowed by war and ethnic cleansing in countries such as Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Congo, Indonesia, Kosovo, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone have never been counted.[x]
The concepts of loss and grief become exponentially complicated when addressing the issues of widowhood throughout the world. Loss of a spouse can and does mean loss of financial security and even loss of safety from assault and rape. Even in developed countries widows often feel they must find new groups of friends who are also widowed. Socializing changes and women may feel shunned by nature of being a widow. Often an elderly woman endures feeling she has done something wrong by way of her husband preceding her in death.
Shunning is the act of deliberately avoiding association.[xi] Its origin is in political punishment, exile, and in only a few religions. Exactly how shunning became applied to widows is not known.
We don’t want to assume that becoming a widow or widower is a benign event. It is filled with loss, fear, and a knowing that even worse things may be ahead.
Take care and be well,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
[i] Nanette Mongelluzzo, “Street Stories of Mexico” (PhD Diss., Saybrook University, 2006).
[ii] Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), World Health Organization (WHO), & American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 1989. “Midlife and older women in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Washington, DC: Author.
[iii] Brenda Rosenbaum, “With Our Heads Bowed: Women, Society and Culture in Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico” (PhD diss., 1987). Dissertation Abstracts International-A, 48(04), 971. Abstract retrieved September 24, 2004, from ProQuest Digital Dissertations database.
[iv] Mongelluzzo, “Street Stories of Mexico.”
[v] Sylvia Arrom, Containing The Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774-1871 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
[vi] Ken Tout, Ageing in Developing Countries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
[vii] Women’s United Nations Report Network (WUNRN). (n.d.) ‘The Status of Widows in South Asia.” Retrieved from, www.wunrn.com/news/general/stories/032905.
[viii] Karin Ulrike Soika. “Sati, a project on the Indian ritual of widow burning.” 2002. Retrieved March 8, 2005, from http://www.soika.com/links/projekte/esati.htm.
[ix] World Bank. “How Poor are the Old? A Survey of Evidence from 44 Countries.” Volume1, Washington DC: World Bank.
[x] United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (UNDAW). (2005, January27). Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. New York: United Nations.
[xi] P.B. DeVinne (Ed). American Heritage Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982).