‘On The Run’ With Margaret Owen OBE
Interview with Margarate Owen, director of Widows for Peace through Democracy.
May 9th, 2012 by Kathryn Hovington
As Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy, what has been your main focus?
I am really extraordinarily privileged to work on one of the most neglected areas of gender and human rights. I work on widowhood issues: widowhood in developing countries, specifically countries in conflict and post-conflict scenarios where there are millions of uncounted widows and ‘half widows’ (wives of the missing). There is still so much to achieve; changes in government policies, awareness in the national communities, the UN, and all the international legal mechanisms. The issue of widowhood is not just a woman’s issue, it is an issue for the whole of society.
An important aspect of widowhood is its irrevocable negative impact on their children’s lives. The effect on the children of widows is terrible due to their mothers’ poverty because of their lack of inheritance, land rights and inability to access the justice system. These children are often withdrawn from school or never get the chance to attend it. The most at risk are the daughters of widows. The girls can be forced into prostitution because of poverty or may be married off when they are still children, going on to become young widows themselves. So this is not just a woman’s issue or a moral or welfare compassion issue, it is actually a huge economic and political issue. After all, the most valuable resource of any country is its young people, the future generation.
How did your career begin and what lead you into human rights?
I am 80 years old now and 60 years ago, when I was at Cambridge University, there was no such thing as a human rights course. Nobody even talked about human rights very much! I was never going to follow the conventional path of becoming a practicing barrister, solicitor or judge. I was always interested in the interface between law and society, law and sociology, and law and anthropology – the impact of law on the most disadvantaged people in society, particularly their access to justice.
I began at the Bar in the fifties, when it was a terribly difficult time for women. There was so much prejudice against women lawyers at the Bar in those days, and I wanted to be independent, not to have to live at home with my parents, so I left and slightly changed direction. I moved into advertising and television (which had just started). For a while I worked as a producer at Granada television, making programmes about social issues. I later started a degree in anthropology and, after I got married, I took a degree in social administration and policy at LSE.
At that time, Idi Amin had just kicked out the Ugandan Asians from Uganda and I started to work in this country for the coordination of the welfare of Ugandan Asians. I travelled to India and wrote the first report, called Stranded in India, about Ugandan Asians who were in India when their wives and children were in camps in the UK. Following the report I prepared for the UNHCR and the UK foreign and Home office, the government changed its policy and allowed into this country those Ugandan Asian husbands and sons. The camps were closed, families reunited, and these hard-working people could start their businesses and support their dependents. I then joined the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service as senior counsel working on immigration and asylum. But it was as head of law and policy at IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation) that really started me thinking about the status of women.
What was it that sparked your interest in the particular field of widows’ rights?
I came across this issue, that nobody was ever looking at, by accident following the death of my husband twenty years ago. At that time, I was Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of Pubic Administration teaching judicial administration to Commonwealth magistrates. One of the magistrates from Malawi came to me and asked for help with a very sick baby. I managed to get a paediatrician at the hospital in Salisbury to admit them under his care. I invited the woman to bring the baby from Malawi to stay with me whilst the baby received treatment. She was the catalyst. She walked into my house straight from the plane and before she had even sat down she looked around my living room and said, “You mean your husband’s brothers let you stay here and keep all these things?” That triggered something – it rang a bell somewhere in my head.
A few weeks later, I was off to UCLA where I had been invited as a visiting professor to teach a course on law, women, development and health and while I was there I began to search in the huge UCLA library for anything written about widows, but there was absolutely nothing. At that time we were moving towards the fourth World Women’s Conference which was to take place in Beijing in 1995. With help from the Commonwealth Secretariat, I held the first international workshop on widowhood in Beijing and that started the process.
Do you have a vision of what you would like to achieve moving forward? What is the mission?
It was a case of, “What can we do?” Widows need to be represented nationally, regionally and internationally. Children have UNICEF and the Save the Children, refugees have UNHCR and prisoners have Prisoners of Conscience and Amnesty. But what about widows? So we set up an international organisation, which has gone through various stages. The organisation I now direct is called the Widows for Peace through Democracy. I suppose the real goal is to have a world where in no countries do widows suffer from stigma and marginalisation, are denied their basic rights, treated like chattels, are the poorest of the poor, their voices never heard and victims of degrading and harmful traditional practices. In some countries these practices really amount to torture.
One of our most important purposes is to support widows in countries where widowhood is a social death. To be able to deliver to them real training, not just training about their rights, because it is really their needs that are most important to them. How can they actually articulate their needs? We want to provide support and training which gives them the confidence to articulate those needs to governments, to be participants in decision-making committees and to even be in governments themselves. To be involved, particularly in countries coming out of conflict where, in the period of transition, there will be constitutional and legal reform and all sorts of other activities to do with truth and reconciliation, peace building and democracy building.
People tell me that I have achieved so much and that I put widowhood on the agenda and raised awareness, but I feel we have such a long way to go. I wish I was thirty years younger so I could do so much more. We have put it on the ladder, but it is right at the bottom and I want to see it further up. I want to see a really powerful organization representing widows internationally, which has a place at all the top tables.
Do you envisage any obstacles along the way?
We face two obstacles. Firstly, there is no reliable data or statistics – we know very little. That is a big obstacle. However, we have an incredible partner in Nepal, whose widow members themselves are filling the gap in data to map and profile. The other biggest obstacle, apart from no core funding of course, is that everyone in government and from development agencies, donors and the UN, all speak about women as if women are an homogenous group – but they are not; one of the most ignored and poorest sub-sect of ‘women’ are the widows and wives of the missing.
Have there been any experiences in your own life, from your professional career or personal life which you draw on for inspiration in this work?
People often ask about my own widowhood, but I can’t speak about it in the same way because I don’t suffer from any of this. Of course, one has grief and sometimes one is lonely, but I have a roof over my head and I have an education, so I could always continue to work and I am not stigmatized because I am a widow – nobody is calling me a witch.
There are many amazing women who inspire me, Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, Noeleen Kaleeba from Uganda, Graca Machal, Aung San Suu Kyi – but there is one woman in particular. Her name is Lily Thapa and I first met her ten years ago at a meeting about widows in Delhi and I invited her to London to speak at the 20th birthday of CEDAW. She is the CEO and founder of an extraordinary organisation (my partner in Nepal), called WHR-SWG (Women for Human Rights, Single Women Group). The reason she named it Single Women instead of Widows is because, as in so many countries in the region, the vernacular translation of widow means whore, sorceress or witch.
Lily was widowed when she was a young mother, with three very small boys. Her husband was a surgeon during the Gulf war and when he was killed there she had to suffer all the traditional mourning rites. Her hair was cut off by her own mother, her nose-ring was torn out with pincers and her jewellery was smashed. Almost immediately, whilst the Nepal conflict was raging, she joined with five other widows and they began to work together to set up their widows organisation. Despite making herself unpopular with the Government, she worked across the country, including in Maoist villages. The WHR-SWG went on to establish shelters and training projects for widows escaping poverty and sexual abuse.
She is now very well known in the UN and in NGO circles. She has mapped and profiled 84,000 widows in 57 of the 76 regions of Nepal. Hers is one of the few NGOs sitting with the Government and Lily Thapa has persuaded the Nepalese to include the treatment of widows as one of the indicators for monitoring the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. She has helped 11 widows attain seats in the Nepalese Parliament; worked to change the law on pension rights, and convinced the Government to develop a national action plan on 1325. Lily started out in a country where she faced so much discrimination and stigma and she is now an international figure. I am so inspired by her and her achievements.
Where do you get your formidable energy?
Well I think that passion is essential to fuel you, and make you look and explore all around you – finding where you can bring people in to make you aware and to help you.
Widows are not simply victims, they are not simply poor, vulnerable and needy, they undertake key crucial roles as the sole providers for their families. In many countries you have old grandmothers looking after orphans and other dependents who have been wounded and traumatised by war.
Widows can be very effective agents of change if they are helped, and consulted. They must be informed and must be influential in the formation of policies – we want to see widows in the mainstream.
For further information: