Widows demand justice

Tomorrow, June 23, is International Widows Day. Around the world, widows are denied justice. They are dropped from social networks, they are forgotten, they are denied access to property, they are circled in by various `cultural’ and legal restrictions. Around the world. This is not about `the developing world’. It’s global.

Rio + 20 ends today. Many who care about the environment, in whatever way, are frustrated by the lack of meaningful action. Women and women’s advocates, in particular, object to the absolute failure of the conference to understand as fundamental the link between family planning and environmental justice. Family planning covers the entire arc of family history, from before cradle to the grave … or at least it should. Did you hear any major discussion in Rio about widows’ rights? Me neither. What about at the G20 meeting in Mexico City this past week? No? Neither did I. How will widows figure into the family planning summit conference in London, in July? Wait and see.

Widows around the world are of all ages, and they share more than grief. They share reduced access to means of survival and well being. Some are workplace widows, such as Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark, Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto, whose respective partners were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, Have they received proper compensation? No. Do the widows of mining disasters receive proper compensation for their loss? Seldom.

Nanda Bhandare’s husband was a cotton farmer. Debts rose, Indian small farmers faced multinational agro-corporations and a hostile global market, bankruptcy and starvation loomed larger and larger. One day, Bhandare’s husband protested with his life. He drank enough pesticide to kill himself. He died, but his debts live on. Years later, his widow has taken the children out of school to work the fields to pay those debts. Each day, they move closer to death by starvation. Where is Nanda Bhandare in the global conference circuitry? Nowhere.

Around the world, widows are initially acknowledged and supported, especially after a catastrophe such as the recent airline crash in Nigeria. What happens next? Too often they are abandoned. Individuals, communities, agencies move on, feeling they have done their due diligence. They haven’t. We haven’t..

Around the world widows are organizing. In the Cross River State, in Nigeria, widows and their supporters are talking about what is needed: enhanced livelihood options through access to real education and equitable finance; increased cooperation among widows and widows-focused organisations through the formation of widows cooperatives and networks; increased public awareness on widowhood issues through information, education and communication; and, finally, enabling a policy environment for widows through an advocacy campaign.

In Nigeria, as almost everywhere, the condition of widows is lamentable, but it is not inevitable.

In Sierra Leone, for example, more than 20% of households are headed by women. Over a third of the women who are heads of households are widows. Women, like Gladys Brima, the founder of Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace, are advocating, organizing, pushing. Women like Sia Bona are staking their lives on organizing. When Bona’s husband died, her in laws swooped in and pushed her and her mother off the farm, a farm that had been Bona’s father’s farm. The law says one thing, customary and traditional law says another. Women, and especially rural women, don’t live in `the State’. They live where they live, locally. Federal or national laws without built in requirements for local transformation are, at best, empty symbols. More often than not, they are tools of oppression, exclusion, and betrayal. Bona, Brima and other women in Sierra Leone are organizing at all levels to change that situation … now.

A version of that exclusion takes place almost everywhere. Widows must have more than a seat at the conference table. They must be prioritized, not just recognized. Thus far, they are not. Instead, widows haunt the discussion of global and of local justice. And they are organizing.


(Photo Credit: PTI)

The Gulf of Mourning and Memory

Deepwater Dirge by Dana Sherwood

April 20, 2011. It is a year to the day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending fire into the sky, oil into the seas, and death and destruction across space and time. It is a year since eleven workers were killed, some say murdered, by the `inevitable’ conditions of work on that rig.

Eleven workers died that day: Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Dale Kleppinger, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, Adam Wiese.

Nine women became widows that day: Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark,  Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto. For a year, these women have mourned and grieved and organized. They continue to mourn, grieve, organize. They continue to take care of their daughters and sons and lives. The work of mourning and the work of survival are one. But for these women, and their children, and their loved ones and neighbors and communities, the work of memory has become critical.

And the work of memory is difficult, arduous even. Theresa Carpenter, Courtney Kemp’s mother, knows the men’s names are vanishing from the public conscience: “These men are all but forgotten except by their families.” Billy Anderson, Jason Anderson’s father, knows as well: “”Within seven or 10 days as far as the media’s concerned, those guys didn’t count for anything. They cared more about some oil-covered pelican or little bird, or something. It was like those 11 men’s lives didn’t mean anything.”

What is the meaning of these workers’ lives? What is the meaning of mourning? What is the meaning of grief? What is the meaning of memory? A year ago the sky blew up and the waters seized. Today, according to many, the situation is the same.  Ask the fisher folk, like Diane Wilson or Darla Rooks or Kim Chauvin or Rosina Philippe and her aunt Geraldine Philippe.

What is the meaning of memory if we continue to insist on forgetting? Twenty years ago, in 1991, Adrienne Rich’s collection, An Atlas of the Difficult World was published. The title poem, “An Atlas of the Difficult World”, has thirteen sections. The second section is entitled, “Here is a map of our country.”

“Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water . . . .
This is the sea-town of myth and story             when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt    here is where the jobs were            on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks    hourly wages and no shares ….”

Here is a map of our country, twenty years ago, one year ago, today … and tomorrow? The Gulf of Mexico is a natural body of water. We, however, are the builders of the Gulf of Mourning and Memory. A year later the situation is still the same.


(Image Credit: Dana Sherwood http://danasherwoodstudio.com/projects/deepwater-dirge-2011)