While the grief and sorrow of COVID-19 widows is profound in affluent countries like the United States, in some developing countries of the world, the painful losses widows experience may be amplified to an entirely different level due to socio-cultural norms.
Abhorrent cultural practices around widowhood include expulsion from family, stigmas, discrimination, and pressure to marry another family member. Discriminatory laws can prohibit a woman from inheriting property, stripping her of her land rights. Moreover, if she can inherit the land, she might face intense pressure from her deceased husband’s family to return the property, leaving her penniless and vulnerable, with no way to make a living. The COVID isolation layered on top of this terrible situation can leave widows in these countries feeling hopeless, alone, and frightened, on top of feeling filled with grief. They also may have less contact with the outside world to seek help.
Women wanting a divorce in the developing world may also be grappling with cultural norms that discriminate against them, as well as the financial challenges that go along with separation. In many parts of the world, divorce is considered shameful for families and women, pressuring women to stay in their marriage for many years after their heart has left it. A divorce could mean expulsion from her own family and cultural community, in addition to leaving her husband. Her financial future may be bleak as well. Depending on the country’s laws, women may receive little to no property after a divorce, even if her husband physically abused her. Alone without assets or property leaves her financially vulnerable, effectively imprisoning millions of women in unsafe marriages.
Of course, the stigma of divorce is real in industrialized countries, as well, and many women in developed nations feel trapped in bad marriages. A study carried out for law firm Slater and Gordon found that half of all couples who divorce feel a sense of shame and failure – with women being twice as likely as men to feel shame. The divorce stigma can show up in the form of losing friends. Over half of the women said they lost friends because of the divorce and one in six said they lost all their friends. Ouch!
This social stigma can turn deadly. My grandmother was a victim of a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, which ended up costing her life. As a teenager, I drummed up the courage to ask Grandma why she stayed in the relationship and discovered that Grandma had little knowledge of how to manage her own finances, and she felt financially trapped. She also explained that women of her generation did not get divorced. While the laws in the United States are meant to protect each divorcing person, it is not necessarily easy to “just leave.” There are many considerations, with social pressures and money being significant.
We must do better to support women who are on their own due to widowhood or divorce. Although divorce has become a normal part of society and human relationships, backward societal attitudes toward divorcees and widows are misguided. As women, we need to challenge this perception and push for change. Widowed and divorced women need their culture and community support more than ever as they deal with moving forward independently.
Listen and Stand Up
The worst thing we can do is stay silent. We need to listen with compassion and without judgment, and then talking about it is the next step we can take to expose the cruelties suffered by widows and divorced women around the world. Creating a safe space for these women to share their stories is essential.
Teach the Next Generation
Start conversations about gender roles early on, and challenge the traditional roles assigned to men and women. We empower the next generation to think for themselves and move towards a more just world by arming young advocates with information about women’s rights and equal rights for all, so that we can build a better future for all, together.
Fund Women’s Organizations
Donate to local and international organizations that empower women, amplify their voices, support survivors, and promote acceptance of all gender identities and sexualities. Get involved in these organizations that stand up for women’s rights and impact the world.
I took this advice to heart early on in my career. After coming across more and more women whose lack of financial well-being made them vulnerable to a range of emotional, personal, and economic consequences, I created a charity to solve this problem. I started Savvy Ladies, a non-profit dedicated to empowering women to take control of their finances by providing educational programming and a free financial helpline to help women make informed and sound financial decisions. We all need to do our part!