Empowered women ensure a nation reaches its potential

In an address to the House of Lords, Philippa Stroud shares why it’s important to empower women in order for a nation to reach its potential

A commentary for the Empowered People programme by Baroness Philippa Stroud

Published 8 Aug 2018

For many of the estimated 258 million widows globally, this grief and loss can be coupled with crushing poverty and persecution. For the estimated 584 million children of these women, this poverty can be extremely difficult to escape and can significantly affect the prosperity of the next generation. Around 11% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty, but globally almost 15% of widows live in extreme poverty where they are unable to meet their basic needs. The number of widows and the situation widows find themselves in are often symptomatic of wider issues in their society, and an effective response cannot fail to consider this within a wider context.

Countries where the number of widows is the highest are those scarred, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has just said, by significant past or current conflict, for example Afghanistan and Ukraine. The Legatum Prosperity Index clearly demonstrates this—I refer to my interests as set out in the register. It shows that a lack of safety and security in a country is the most significant barrier to development and prosperity. The countries at the bottom of the index are those, such as Yemen, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Afghanistan, which have experienced significant conflict. For many women recently widowed in conflict, their situation will be compounded by the effects of that ongoing conflict. Many will become refugees and be at serious risk of being trafficked; 71% of the detected victims of human trafficking are women and girls, and it is known that traffickers prey on women, such as recent widows, who are not accompanied by men and find themselves in vulnerable situations. Many trafficked women may have started their journey as a refugee fleeing war, having lost their partner.

It is also no accident that many of the countries which find themselves in the bottom third of the Legatum Prosperity Index are among those with the poorest record on women’s rights, education and economic empowerment. It is evident that a nation cannot fully reach its potential when only half of its human capital is empowered. When women are unable to access education, are unable to join or strongly discouraged from joining, the workforce and their ability to own or inherit property is diminished, it is unsurprising that the loss of their spouse is devastating. In Yemen, women make up less than 8% of the workforce; in Syria, it is 14%. It is unsurprising therefore that being widowed in those nations compounds an existing economic issue by removing the main source of income with little recourse to making a living in a way that their society accepts. According to UN data, in 28% of developing countries, existing statutory and customary laws do not guarantee women the same inheritance rights as men, and many more countries have societal norms that hinder them.

When women lack rights and equality when their husband is alive, they are even less likely to be afforded them when he dies or is killed. Where widows are the most stigmatised, women are generally stigmatised, so the situation is significantly exacerbated by the additional stigma of widowhood. The Loomba Foundation’s work to empower widows by developing skills is one of the ways in which we can ensure that women’s lives do not spiral into poverty with the loss of their husband.

Attitudes across the world are slowly beginning to shift, however, as the economic sense of women’s empowerment becomes clear. During the genocide in Rwanda, more than 250,000 women were horrifically raped, but now 64% of parliamentarians in that nation are women—the highest proportion of any Parliament in the world. Women across Rwanda played a vital role in rebuilding the country. Gender rights are enshrined in its constitution and changes in law have given women the right to inherit land, share assets with their spouse and obtain credit. This is a key example, which other countries should follow, of the need for and potential of women and widows in rebuilding post-conflict societies.

It must be recognised that the journey to prosperity for nations has to be one of lifting all their peoples and empowering all members of society. The social and economic potential of women and widows globally is enormous. We must make sure that it is harnessed.

Originally published on Hansard