Written by Thomas Kagwa
A society is as strong as its weakest members. Widows are universally recognized as one of the minority groups vulnerable to economic shocks and social disempowerment. Boosting widows’ economic empowerment is key to achieving social justice, but pervasive social norms and discrimination continue to keep widows from accessing and thriving in the workforce.
Widows are less likely to work than any other women demographic, and their participation in the labour force is limited in developing and developing economies alike.
Existing laws already restrict 2.7 billion women from having the same jobs as men globally, and given the lower social strata that widows fall in, it only gets worse for them. In 2018, 18 economies still allowed husbands to approve their wives to work, meaning, widows whose husbands died face an even steeper uphill task. What’s more, 104 countries have not passed comprehensive laws guaranteeing widows’ economic opportunities.
Widows’ economic empowerment helps them gain the skills, resources, and opportunities to participate equally in markets and to control and benefit from their earnings. It is known that social equity that allows for the full economic participation of widows in economic activities helps businesses perform better and supports economic growth overall.
We must ensure widows are equipped to participate in the economy fully. Widows are less likely to have formal bank accounts and take out loans. Even when widows do have their own accounts, their in-laws might still make the decisions about how their funds are used. Widows also often lack access to other financial services like savings and insurance due to a lack of financial education. In some countries, widows aren’t allowed to own the property of their late husbands without the patronage and permission of their in-laws.
Resources like credit access and bank accounts can help create economic opportunities for widows. Financial literacy programs, reforming laws that allow widows to access collateral and apply for loans, improving widow-disaggregated data, and promoting the development of digital payment systems can all help promote widows’ financial inclusion.
Society must enforce policies and social protection systems for widows. Widows are less likely to have access to social protections like inheritance, the right to healthcare, social housing schemes, and unemployment benefits. In Africa on average, widows earn 60% to 75% less than what they used to while their husbands were alive. Closing this blatant pay gap is crucial to levelling the playing field.
For widows that can’t afford to miss work to care for their families, childcare is a game-changer. Flexible work arrangements benefit workers with children regardless of gender to balance the domestic labour burden more fairly. Providing child care and free primary education leave would especially benefit poor widows. A 2% investment in child care in any economy generates a 6% growth in the economy.
Unpaid care work includes household duties such as cooking, cleaning, water, and fuel collection, child care, or elder care often carried out by women. It is estimated that 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day. Unpaid care and domestic work contribute to countries’ economies substantially but aren’t seen as real work.
The total value of unpaid care and domestic work is estimated to be between 10% and 39% of the gross domestic product. Counting unpaid care work in statistics, acknowledging its place in the economy, compensating women for their contributions, and considering unpaid care work when making policy decisions can lessen the burden on women and girls.
Invest in widows’ organizations and businesses. Grassroots widows’ organizations and movements are underfunded and under attack around the world. Nearly 70% of widow-owned small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries are financially unserved or underserved.
Widows are also less likely to be entrepreneurs and encounter more obstacles when trying to start a business. Widows’ organizations are supporting initiatives to reduce inequality and increase opportunities for their communities but can’t continue to do so without funding.
Investing in widows’ ventures helps pave the way for the next generation as widows will spend 80% of their income on their family’s well-being and education.
Widows are more likely to be employed in the informal labour force and are overrepresented in domestic work in rural areas that lack protection and living wages. Widows must receive equal access to education, training, new skills, new technologies, management positions, benefits, and entrepreneurship.
Workplaces also need to be free of explicit bias, sexual harassment, and violence, safe, up to health standards and promote equal pay. When widows have more employment and leadership opportunities, this type of inclusivity attracts goodwill, and businesses grow and be more effective.