Foreword by Margaret Owen OBE


I am delighted and honoured to be invited to write the introduction to this collection of unique photographs of Nepali widows. I congratulate James Edwin Bettney for choosing Nepal as the country where his camera would reveal the tragic realities of widows’ lives. For while these Nepali widows share similarities with that of their sisters in other South Asian countries (and indeed in other regions also), it is in Nepal, and so far, Nepal alone, that widows are proving themselves to be “agents of change”.They are organising themselves to be counted, their voices heard, their urgent needs addressed and their crucial roles as sole supporters of children and other dependents adequately recognised and supported.As these photographs and the captions demonstrate, Nepali widows face injustice and poverty on a daily basis, but at least, in a Nepal, there is now a movement they can join that will support them to gain their rights, and recover the respect and dignity they have a right to.
The catalyst for this empowerment of widows is the charismatic Lily Thapa, founder and Executive Director of WHR-SWG (Women for Human Rights –Single Women’s Group). Lily’s own widowhood as a young mother, her experience of the harrowing discrimination and abuse experienced by widows, their consequent poverty and vulnerability to violence, inspired her to form Nepal’s first widows’ association. It is our very best partner and a model for what widows can do when they “band together”. It campaigns for widows’ rights, equality and justice. Hopefully, her work, which has included getting widowhood data into the next census, criminalising abhorrent traditional practices, providing income- generating training and literacy classes, obtaining law reforms, and getting widow representatives on decision-making and national peace-building committees will be copied elsewhere in the world where widowhood carries such stigma .WHR used the world “Single Woman” because the word “widow” in the vernacular is synonymous with “prostitute, witch, sorceress”. But to misquote Shakespeare, a “widow” under any other names will smell as foul”, so work is needed to ensure that the word “widow” no longer carries scorn but engenders respect.

The photographs in this book and their captions portray the misery and isolation of these widows, many of them very young, whose lives are totally determined by archaic and discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Due to the long conflict which claimed so many lives the numbers of widows has increased to unprecedented figures, and, as in so many other conflict areas, there were no official statistics to provide information on their ages, the numbers of their children, their social supports (if any) or their survival and coping strategies. Due to this armed conflict and harmful traditional practices such as early marriage, many Nepali widows are very young, in their early twenties, mothers of young children. On their husband’s death they are often victims of abuse by members of their husband’s family, vulnerable to sexual assault and rape, forced remarriage to a brother-in-law, and denied rights to inheritance. Many flee the violence in the family and community rejection to find means of livelihood in the towns, but there, as so many are illiterate, they may find themselves coerced into prostitution, or into the clutches of traffickers. They cannot afford to send their children to school, and may have to rely on child labour to support themselves and their youngest offspring.
Widowhood is one of the most neglected of all gender and human rights issue. Never, in the world’s history, have we witnessed such a huge escalation in the numbers of widows across the world, due especially to armed conflict, HIV and AIDS, child marriage and women’s longer life expectancy. Often in the West, widows are assumed to be mainly older women, but widows are of all ages, including“child widows ,young mothers, and elderly grandmothers.All these women have crucial roles to play in their country’s development especially as they are responsible for the nurturing of the next generation. Development policies invariably ignore this huge contingent of women, as their “gender” centred programmes tend to regard women as a homogenous group, and fail to identify a particular category of women – such as widows – who are recipients of particular unjust treatments and therefore need specific kinds of policies to address their plight and ensure them their human rights.
We, at Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) are delighted to learn that
the UN Women’s South Asian Director has recently launched a new programme which seeks to reduce the social ostracism faced by widows, saying “the time has come for us to act and create space for widows in mainstream policy and social welfare schemes. In India, where there are over 40 million widows, UN Women will work particularly with widows affected by HIV. In Nepal and Sri Lanka the focus will be on young widows and widows living in conflict areas”.
I hope that UN Women, as well as UN Member States and international and national NGOS working on gender issues will see this beautiful book and learn from the messages it communicates.