27th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent



Organisers : Australian Red Cross and ICRC, in collaboration with the Swedish Red Cross

The prevalence of armed conflicts and the high levels of military and civilian casualties in armed conflicts has resulted in a large number of widows in many countries. In this workshop we used the term widow in a very broad sense encompassing women who do not know the fate of their missing husbands.

Throughout the world women have shown remarkable and commendable courage, resourcefulness and resilience in carrying on with the trauma of their loss, the isolation imposed by being a widow and with the difficult tasks of providing an income, sustaining and protecting themselves and their dependent family members.

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 activities of the ICRC was to assist needy widows in the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s. The ICRC continues to assist and protect widows throughout the world where they have been identified as the most vulnerable.

This Workshop explored the problems faced by widows during armed conflict and its aftermath. It identified the coping strategies of widows 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. Presentations were given from a range of countries higlighting the realties faced by many widows across the world. There was an underlying theme that widows needed to be listened to and encouraged to unite into groups and not seen as a threat now that they are perceived as outside the normal social order. Widows need to be enabled to participate fully in the social, economic and political reconstruction of the 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, with a policy of exhumation; - the need to identify the numbers of widows affected by armed conflict in order to be able to assess the scale of the problems that affect them; - the importance of psycho-social counselling, emotional support and empowerment; - the need to identify the problems of widowhood and the thematic links with other issues such as street children and child soldiers; - moral redress and material compensation on the part of the State; - adequate national legislation to protect and assist widows including the rights to land and inheritance; - legal education and representation; - assistance programmes with a long term perspective enabling future self sufficiency, dignity and taking into account the specific skills and needs of widows; - the need not to overlook widows from peace-keeping/enforcement operations and the likelihood of increasing prevalence of such operations; and - the need 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:

Sadzida Rasidagic, President of the "Red Cross of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina". The displacement, death and disappearance of so many people as a consequence of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has changed the demographic structure of certain regions. Many women have lost their husbands and breadwinners, 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 - and the distress and uncertainty caused by not knowing the fate of your loved ones. Widows are receiving assistance from both governmental and non-governmental organisations but this is limited and sporadic. The destruction of social and economic structures as a result of the war has put women in a difficult position, with few possibilities to generate income and making them economically dependent. Widows need to be able to achieve self-reliance through full participation in society.

Erina Baines, UNHCR - UNHCR highlighted some of their activities to support the capabilities 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.

Sandra Flores Correa, Panama Red Cross - As we compare existing norms (international instruments) to protect and assist women with the real situation of widows in Central America and Panama, the viability of applying these norms becomes doubtful in view of the poor economies and the number of beneficiaries. In Panama, the success of the campaign by the widows of soldiers is compared to the problems faced by widows of civilians who did not organise in the same way. Furthermore, the situation in Guatemala is explored, where a non-international conflict has left 100,000 widows. To contend with the legal, economic, moral and social problems they faced, many organisations have been formed, first and foremost to locate those unaccounted for. This presentation concludes with some aspects which must be dealt with in order to meet the personal and social needs of widows.

Monika Kaempf, Public Health Advisor, Health and Relief Division, ICRC - a brief overview was given of some of ICRC's activities which directly assist widows. Colonel Nur, Secretary-General, Somali Red Crescent - The conflict in Somalia has been rooted in traditional clan rivalries, killing an estimated half a million Somalis and displacing 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 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 RC has initiated a project of credit scheme for women affected by the war, more than 300 beneficiaries from households missing their husband or widows have benefited from a loan to improve their living conditions.

Pum Chantinie, First Deputy Secretary General, Cambodian Red Cross - The years of war in Cambodia have blurred the clear distinction of 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 action. Cambodian women have suffered the loss of family, houses, cooking utensils, agricultural tools, cultivated land and animals. They faced extreme poverty and physical danger. From one day to the next, physical and economic survival has been the dominant issue in most women's lives. The change in the country's demographics has led to a lack of educational attainment, poor health conditions, underemployment and lack of access to credit. The proportion of the female population living in poverty is highly significant. Overcoming the cultural constraints of Khmer society through legal and policy initiatives directly targeting the inclusion and participation of women in all aspects of the country's reconstruction and development is essential.

Gawaher Atif, World Food Programme - 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", are stigmatised as widows, are rarely consulted about their needs and face additional obstacles in participating in food for work programmes.

General Harrouk, President, Lebanese Red Cross - The effects of widowhood - physical, social and economic - and the impact that these have on the women themselves were outlined. Uncertainty for 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 elaborated. From the experience gained from these programmes, the Lebanese Red Cross believes 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.

Margaret Owen, Empowering Widows in Development (UK NGO) - 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 their voices. Mechanisms must be put in place to protect widow's human rights, make them aware of their rights and integrate them into the new post-conflict economy in order that they can fully participate in civil society and raise their children.

Lena Hansson, Swedish Red Cross, briefly outlined a meeting to be held on Wednesday 3rd November entitled "Promoting a Culture of Peace: Looking ahead on Possible Root Causes of Violence Highlighting the Role of Men and Masculinity. Charlotte Lindsey, ICRC, read out ICRC's Pledge given to the 27th International Conference. This pledge focuses on women affected by armed conflict.


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