On the evening of Feb. 14, 2001, my mother became a widow after my father unexpectedly died.
My two sisters and I have been blessed to have been raised in a middle-class family. Our father was a retired Episcopal priest and our mother was a public school teacher. When he died, my family, like other families, faced the challenge of processing the shock of his death and beginning the long, painful process of grieving and healing. Fortunately, his death did not negatively impact my mother financially.
But unfortunately for many widows in the U.S., and particularly those in Africa, the death of a husband often results in severe financial hardship for the surviving spouse as well as other family members.
One in 10 African women older than 14 counts as a widow with 6% representing those who have gone through the painful process of divorce.
“Many more,” according to Asli Demingo-Kunt, director of research at The World Bank, “has been widowed or divorced at some point in their lives. In the face of divorce or widowhood, women often struggle with serious economic hardship.”
One New York City-based organization that is making a difference in addressing the challenges of widowhood, under the leadership of its president, Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, is the Global Fund for Widows (GFW). The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Ibrahim-Leathers is a longtime investment banker turned philanthropist.
She founded GWF, a nonprofit organization, in 2008 after the death of her grandmother, a young widow.
Today, it is the world’s largest non-profit organization economically empowering widows in the developing world. GFW does this by building their own financial inclusion innovation of the Widows’ Savings and Loan Associations (WISALAs), or “micro-banks,” which provide a permanent source of capital from which they can launch micro-businesses. Thus far, GFW has built 109 banks around the world and empowered 20,000 widows. It has also helped 54,000 of those widows’ children across Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi and India. A new pilot program in Niger is now being explored.
“Our innovative financial inclusion programming centers on the simple tenet of the Golden Rule: She who has the gold, makes the rules,” Ibrahim-Leathers said.
Moreover, Ibrahim-Leathers and other representatives are known in the halls of the United Nations, U.S. Congress, as well the House of Lords in London for the organization’s efforts in raising the profile of widowhood as a basic human right. Indeed, across the continent of Africa, the impact of death and disappearance falls more heavily on women, who are often excluded socially and lose their home and property after a marriage ends.
According to a July 2020 Global Sisters Report, “African widows, irrespective of their cultural, religious or ethnic groups, are among the most vulnerable and destitute women on the continent.” Many are subjected to dehumanizing cultural and ritual practices passed off as mourning rites.
The report continues, “Widows must undertake a requisite cleansing that entails a widow having unprotected sex with her husband’s brother or other relative, or with a professional village to remove the impurities that been ascribed to her.”
Ibrahim-Leathers says, “The plight of widows is one of the most underestimated human rights violations being experienced by women globally. Systemic disinheritance, discrimination, and harmful practices endured by widows not only result in the direct link between widowhood and poverty but are also directly linked to hunger, poor health, poor education of widows’ children, human trafficking, extremist indoctrination and recruitment, child marriage, and the unconscionable phenomenon of the child widow.”
On Nov. 13, GFW held its 13th annual fundraising gala. The program, pretaped and virtual, was viewed by 40 guests in the home of Ibrahim-Leathers while also being simulcast to a vast online global audience. Among the notables in attendance were His Excellency Carlos dos Santos, Mozambique’s Ambassador to the United States, and Her Excellency, Ambassador Victoria Sulimani of the Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations.
Despite these challenging times, it was the highest-grossing annual fundraising event to date for GFW. This further emboldens their belief that the time for widows’ rights is upon us.
Those honored at the gala were the Honorable Graça Machel, the widow of the late President of Mozambique, Samora Machel; His Excellency Abdou Abarry, Niger’s Ambassador to the United Nations; and Racey Muchilwa, Head of Sub-Saharan Africa for Novartis.
“It is not enough for me to teach the widows how to fish. I want the widows to own the lake. Then they can charge for fishing, shipping, docking and swimming rights. That is how they will achieve true sustainability. That is how they will achieve true gender equality,” Ibrahim-Leathers said.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.