Many Arab Women Belong to a Neglected Social Category
By: Raff Ellis/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the western world, when one mentions society’s disadvantaged women, they usually think of those unfortunates who are subjected to hiring discrimination, promotional bias, pay inequality, glass ceilings, and sexual harassment. There is, however, another unmentioned category, especially in traditional Arab countries, such as Egypt. It is called widowhood.
Frequent wars, internecine conflicts, healthcare deficiencies, disease, pandemics, and arduous labor, imposes shorter lifespans for males creating the neglected class of widowhood. This group has become a surprisingly large, unrecognized societal segment in nearly all Arab countries. In Egypt, the most populous of the Arab League, at about 100 million, the estimated number of women without partners is over 17 million. That is nearly 20% of the country’s total inhabitants. In the poorer parts of Egypt, the proportion increases to nearly 30% of the population.
Widowhood visits immediate problems upon these unfortunates. With the loss of husbands as their traditional breadwinners, these women experience a sudden, if not complete elimination of household income. In many cases, widows are less educated and unaware of government entitlements such as their right to a pension or educational assistance for children. A depressing result of surveys revealed that those women could not access their legally allotted government rations for basic needs such as bread or gas cylinders. In many of these cases, the distributors of such basic needs (who are overwhelmingly male) deny the widow her full ration, preferring to keep a portion of the government allotment to sell for his own personal gain on the black market. In rural areas, the widows are mostly unskilled, resulting in their inability to find safe and decent work. In their efforts to access such basic needs as food, medication, education, or shelter, they find themselves falling deeper in debt and are soon plunged into extreme poverty.
Of course, as in many other Arab countries, Egyptian women are traditionally relegated to 2nd class (or lower) status as a matter of course. Widows, therefore, find it particularly difficult to sustain themselves and their families. These hapless souls, along with their children, are relegated to begging in the streets to satisfy basic needs. The younger members of this class seek remarriage to relieve their poverty. This choice is most often not available to the older women.
Widows in almost all Arab countries have the weakest health status of all female heads of household. Many have not been able to access basic quality health care. Because of the lack of full access to such services, a direct correlation can be drawn to their financial burdens, compounding deteriorating personal health. Widows surveyed said that the social challenge included ostracization, exclusion, or uninvited and unwanted intervention of community members in their lives. This had a debilitating effect on their psychological health, resulting in feelings of loneliness, despair, and hopelessness.
Despite legal protections under Egyptian law, widows are unable to functionally inherit their husbands estate. This is especially true for widows who do not have sons, and therefore a male heir. After the loss of her husband, a widow finds that his male relatives prevent her from inheriting her legal entitlement, either through coercion or deception. This is particularly prevalent in areas where illiteracy among women is high, and their consequent lack of knowledge of their rights renders them prey to easy manipulation. A widow is also often ejected from her husband’s family home and becomes homeless. Most Widows claim they are prevented from inheriting their husband’s property or are too intimidated to seek their legal inheritance rights. Some widows have even reported being forced to surrender sons to the husband’s family as part of the distribution of the late husband’s assets.
Additionally, statistical research revealed the following information:
53% of Widows are between the ages of 20 and 39.
70% of widows live on less than $2.20 per day.
57% of them support families of 3 or more.
36% of Egyptian households are headed by a widow or single mother.
72% of widows surveyed could not read.
53% of widows say they have no source of income.
82% of widows say they would like to start a small business.
80% of widows said they never received an opportunity to start a small business.
For an increasing number of Egyptian widows, help has arrived from the Global Fund for Widows, an American-based charity that recognized the needs of this unidentified and generally ignored group. The Fund was created to economically empower widows and female heads of households. It has put into play several methods to redress their problems, with an emphasis on creating sustainable lifestyles. By granting these women access to skills-based training and teaching them financial literacy, they develop the ability to take charge of their lives. They are also granted access to micro-finance through proprietary micro-banks called WSLA, Widows’ Savings and Loan Associations. This gives them access to loans that allow them to start small businesses. These enterprises run the gamut from selling home-baked goods, finger foods, little repair shops, and many other single-proprietor endeavors.
The GFW has taken an important step in redressing an important problem in Egypt. As little as $50-$100 allows a widow to start a business that will feed her and her family. You could say this is American capitalism at its finest.