Inkuru Zacu

International Widows Day - Social Commitment by First Ladies Mrs Sylvia Bongo and Mrs Jeannette Kagame


Address co-signed by:
H.E. Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, First Lady of the Republic of Gabon and
H.E. Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda

We had great expectations this past September, when, gathered in New York, we witnessed the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, number five of which is to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.

Yet 2016 will remain deeply marked by less positive developments, beginning with the multiplication of conflicts around the world, in which women are regrettably often the first victims. Having lost their husbands, they are stigmatized and abused, even though they are at the heart of any possible reconstruction and development.

It is our duty not only to protect them but also to empower widows to fully unlock their potential. These are the stakes of International Widows Day, and its 6th edition celebrated this June 23rd 2016, after being adopted by consensus at the UN General Assembly in December 2010, following the resolution proposed by the then-presiding Government of Gabon, at the UN Security Council.

Today more than ever, it is essential that our commitment to widows does not falter, and that, instead, it helps them remove the barriers that still prevent women from playing a leading role in economic development.

Let us not forget that it took over 150 years after the adoption of an International Women’s Day, in the early 19th century, for most women in the world to gain the right to vote, to have access to quality education and to perform the same jobs as men. It is therefore not surprising that International Widows Day marks only the beginning of a long struggle for the protection of these women unjustly dispossessed and driven from their home by their in-laws, as is still the case in so many countries throughout the world, and particularly in Africa and Asia.

Figures speak for themselves: out of 258 million widows worldwide, more than 115 million live in extreme poverty; some face ostracism, violence, deprivation of their homes, disease or legal and social discrimination; and 81 million have been sexually abused, while 1.5 million of their children die before their fifth birthday. In 2011, an expert report commissioned by the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation for the Family on the specific situation of widows in Gabon confirmed that 47% of them were victims of abuse and spoliation, while only 21% could exercise their rights.

As First Ladies, as mothers and as women, our commitment and advocacy has only one goal: to ensure that the living conditions of these widows will not take a century to improve. Considerable progress has already been made, particularly in Gabon, where the protection of widows has been made a priority. The most symbolic measures include the foundation of the National Observatory for the Protection of Family Rights (ONPDF) and of a National Welfare Fund (FNAS), as well as adopting a number of regulations and legislation to protect the rights of widows, for example by codifying the sharing procedures of death benefits between legal heirs, or setting up a legal aid system.

International Widows Day is not only an opportunity for Gabon, Rwanda and all those who wish to join us to reiterate our commitments to development for and through women, but also to set ourselves ambitious goals for the coming years.

Women are at the heart of development, and without their active participation in our economies Africa will not move forward. In order for our actions to be effective, we must keep in mind that equality and women’s empowerment are both an objective and a part of the solution.

1Situation of widows in Gabon: a legal and anthropological status report

Rwanda is also a prime example. Frequently cited as the very model of African socio-economic development in recent years, the country has established a quota of at least 30% women in decision-making circles at national level, and holds the world record of 64% women in parliament. This decision, taken in the aftermath of the Tutsi Genocide, which killed more than a million men, women, and children and left hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, was driven by a desire to no longer exclude women from the public domain, arguing that the different members of Rwandan society all deserve to be treated equally, without any gender distinction.

It is also in this context that inheritance tax laws, already amended in 1999, have just undergone a new reform approved by the Senate, which will make it possible to more tightly regulate the equitable sharing of marital assets between widows and other legal heirs of the deceased. All too often, women, survivors of the genocide or recently widowed, have found themselves dispossessed as a result of family disputes after the death of their spouse, even though the fundamental equality of rights between the sexes remains at the heart of the social contract of Rwanda today.

In this spirit of fairness, which is essential at all levels, women’s empowerment is an inescapable fact. Specifically, to participate in national development and contribute to changing attitudes, girls and young women should be able to enjoy the many opportunities offered by new technologies and the development of entrepreneurship.

This is the very purpose of our social commitment and the focus of the actions of the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation for the Family and the Imbuto Foundation, whose projects in favour of girls are designed to support and encourage them to pursue further education in order to then apply for senior positions and contribute to the efforts of development and innovation.

The actions of the Imbuto Foundation founded by Mrs Jeannette Kagame and whose mission is to contribute to the development of a prosperous, healthy and well-educated society, has already had an impact on the lives of more than 4,000 girls who were rewarded for their academic excellence, with the girls in the last years of their secondary studies receiving training in information technology; whilst in Gabon, the Book of Careers, produced by the Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation for the Family, continues to help students find the right career path, giving them a better understanding of the job market and growth sectors.

Let us recall that Africa is a creative continent, resolutely geared towards the future and where some of the world’s best innovations are created today. Together, let’s encourage and help young women invest in research and science, and dare to innovate.

This is the vision that guides our commitment by women’s side and the main message we wish to send to African societies on this, the sixth International Widows Day.