“Your husband is a hero,” the priest said. But Oksana Dudar probably knew as she stared at the priest and several Ukrainian soldiers who stood on her doorstep that they did not come with good news. It was March 6, and they were there to tell her that her 44-year-old husband, military reservist Viktor Dudar, had been killed in action. He had been fighting Russian forces near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine and reportedly died in a strike by Russian rockets.
As the war in Ukraine drags on, this scene will play out again and again, leaving thousands widowed on both sides.
Indeed, the Global Fund for Widows describes an “epidemic of widowhood,” not just from this war but from various causes including decades of conflicts worldwide. At a meeting at the United Nations last November, the NGO’s founder, Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, described the scale and plight of widowhood in war and among forcibly displaced populations. In active conflict zones, the rate of widowhood can be as high as 80%. And 350 million estimated widows worldwide — both related and unrelated to war — make up 13% of the population. Collectively, this demographic is in charge of the well-being of 540 million children. Despite its size, this group is largely marginalized in current discussions on peacebuilding, security and human rights.
Widows and their children face greater stigma, human rights abuses and gender-based discrimination in periods of conflict and post-conflict than during peacetime. Trauma is heightened by the loss of service-provision and displacement, especially if legal documents are lost and they become stateless. With few protected rights and minimal support networks, it’s mostly women who are sidelined and left to fend for themselves. Displaced women can spend years in “widow” camps, specific areas of refugee camps where widows are relegated, such as the Camp of the Widows and Orphans in Arsal, Lebanon; Widows Village in Idlib, Syria; and Camp of the Widow in Hakimpara, Bangladesh, to name but a few.
But the data on war widows is still insufficient considering the population in question, and the scholarship on their lived experiences in the aftermath of loss under different circumstances is meager. More research is necessary to provide better support and further understanding about the effect of patriarchy on war widows. The findings of academics, human rights advocates and policy practitioners increasingly align and show that consideration of sociocultural specificities of a region could aid in widows’ recovery.
The marginalization of war widows reflects a long-established pattern. Religious, cultural and societal norms have powerfully shaped expectations of bereavement and widows’ behavior. Historian Katherine Clark Walter notes that in the Middle Ages, Christian clerics “created a model of pious widowhood,” for which chastity and good work were fundamental. In Christian culture, the “widow indeed” (1 Timothy 5:5), who was to forever display her grief, was contrasted with the “merry widow,” who didn’t behave according to expected behaviors of mourning. Clark Walter asserts that “throughout both the medieval and early modern periods, the widow embodied the concept of being deprived and bereft of a husband, an elastic metaphor that positioned her as an analogue to the earthly church lacking its heavenly spouse, and as a disadvantaged person in need of pastoral care.”
This theme of performative widowhood has repeated for centuries. Bosnian-Australian scholar Hariz Halilovich explains that women of Muslim heritage can find consolation in the Islamic belief that their husbands who are proclaimed martyrs and “killed in God’s way” will be rewarded with Paradise in the afterlife. But another consequence of life as “martyr widows,” as Halilovich elaborates, is that “widows are identified with sufferers whose lives are determined by their loss of husbands while completely ignoring their individual peculiarities and needs.”
Regardless of religion, widowed women in conservative settings are often expected to not remarry and to express their pain and grief through religious rituals and choices. Ancient traditions that are harmful to women and war widows persist. Levirate, an ancient form of marriage that used to be practiced across several continents, by which a widow is to marry one of dead husband’s brothers, continues, including in parts of South Caucasus and Africa.
Under patriarchal systems, the death of a husband entails an economic loss for the widow and children, reinforcing their new lower social status and influence. The situation for widowers is often different. Societal and cultural expectations affect grieving widowers’ daily lives. But unlike widows, they are not defined in terms of marital status.
Historian Erika Kuhlman pointed out in her scholarship that widows played a significant role in remaking their nations after both world wars. Referring to letters, diaries, popular magazine articles and correspondence between widows and their governments in the United States and Germany, Kuhlman notes that “Great War widows who lost their soldier-husbands in battle performed honored roles as living, patriotic symbols of self-sacrifice to the nation. They aided the nations in which they lived by providing part of the justification necessary to remilitarize after the guns were silenced, because most women (and men) believed that females required male protectors and defenders.”
In one sense, widows in postwar Europe were lauded for their self-sacrifice to the nation, and the changing ways in which war widows were described is telling of their position in society. For example, the term “soldiers’ widows,” which was used in the U.S. before World War I was replaced by “war widow” afterward. “The former indicated mourners’ ties to a provider and protector,” writes Kuhlman, “while the latter ratcheted up their connections to what was and still is perceived as a key national and historical event.” The German word “Kriegerwitwe” (warrior widow) was more frequently used than “Kriegswitwe” (war widow) or “Soldatenfrau” (soldier’s wife).
At the same time, post-world war widows were left to face numerous material and psychological difficulties in their daily lives. Compensation from the governments was mostly insufficient to cover the family needs, and like generations of war widows before and since, they faced numerous societal stigmas and administrative obstacles to access social welfare, such as pension benefits. In both Allied and non-Allied countries, almost all governments supported pro-natalist policies, reinforcing a patriarchal system in which women’s livelihood was secured through marriage. Kuhlman notes that the “military front and home front were inextricably coupled in nations mobilized for violent destruction. … Widows and soldiers from presumably conquering nations and those from supposed defeated nations both surrendered to the power of the militarized nation-state, although male and female sacrifices were weighted unequally.”
However, historians note that in Europe and North America in the 1950s and 1960s, women began to reject the idea that their identities are inextricably tied to their marital status. Kuhlman points to a decline in descriptions like “wife of” or “mother of” on headstones and cites cultural anthropologist Geertje van Os’ findings that after World War II, Dutch widows wore mourning clothes less often. In the U.S. in the late 1960s and after the Vietnam War, the feminist and women’s liberation movements affected perceptions of war widows.
With each passing conflict, war widows around Europe and beyond have become better at defending their rights by creating lobbying organizations, demanding better government compensation including pensions and connecting more through transnational organizations. War widows’ resilience is a common feature in the ethnographic studies exploring women’s experiences in post-conflict patriarchal environments across continents. In her book, “War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” American political sociologist Marie Berry explains that “while war is destructive, it is also a period of rapid social change that reconfigures gendered power relations by precipitating interrelated demographic, economic, and cultural shifts.” In both countries Berry studied, women mobilized in many new ways at the household, community and national levels.
In Bosnia, many founded small, informal groups in their communities, relying on one another to procure basic necessities for survival, find their loved ones or access trauma counseling. With time, widows became heads of many newly established NGOs, and in contrast with prevalent local conservative patriarchal norms, they increasingly became accepted in communities for their public leadership roles. The organization Mothers of Srebrenica, known for its advocacy on revealing the truth about Bosnian genocide, is one of the most powerful examples of such globally recognized communities.
Blerta Basholli’s internationally award-winning film “Hive” portrays another success story: the true story of Fahrije Hoti, a Kosovar Albanian war widow whose husband went missing in the Kosovo War in 1999, a presumed victim of war crimes committed by Serbian forces. Faced with having to support her two children and father-in-law, Hoti, who was 28 at the time, formed a women-only agricultural cooperative with others from her village whose husbands were missing or killed.
With extraordinary performances by local actors, including Yllka Gashi, Basholli has powerfully put to the big screen a story shared by thousands of other war widows from the region who resolved to fight against suffocating misogyny, often at the sacrifice of their own well-being, and become productive members of society. Today, Hoti is a successful entrepreneur, and through her story, Basholli has sparked important conversations about persistent patriarchal norms in Kosovo.
Halilovich has highlighted the unique set of everyday hardships that widows endure alongside their personal trauma and loss. In his anthropological study on war widows and fatherless families of the Bosnian genocide, we meet Fatima, a Bosniak war widow who also lost two sons in the conflict. After Bosnian Serb military forces burned her house, Fatima lost all her personal documents including certificates of birth, marriage, proof of private property ownership and internally displaced person cards, all of which are needed to access social and health care benefits and a pension. In many countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, access to pensions is limited by rigid criteria for approval and still subject to revision at later points. War widows like Fatima are responsible for financing the collection of complicated paperwork, without guarantees of success. Many give up on the process rather than deal with an often broken and, at times, hostile postwar bureaucracy. Those who have an opportunity to leave often do so, reluctant but exhausted from the additional emotional and physical labor. Ultimately, Fatima immigrated to the U.S.
War widowhood continues to evolve as societal norms associated with families and women’s participation in combat roles change, leading to an ever-increasing number of war widowers. Indeed, tens of thousands of Ukrainian women have taken up arms during the war sparked by Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24.
According to media reports, women constitute from 15% to 17% of the Ukrainian fighting force, and as of February, there were 32,000 women serving in Ukraine’s military. Women have played a crucial role as volunteers in the eastern Donbas region since 2014, and in 2017 women were officially given the right to fight in combat positions for the Ukrainian armed forces. Women serving in different combat roles now account for more than 15% of military personnel.
Although Ukraine announced that it would not reveal its military losses until the end of the war, the U.N. human rights office update on April 15 indicated at least 4,600 civilian casualties in the country. Meanwhile, the latest updates by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from April 15 state that about 20,000 Russian troops have been killed since Feb. 24.
As the war in Ukraine appears to be moving toward a new and potentially more brutal stage, the number of those widowed will increase. In the coming months and years, war widows and widowers will face significant challenges, from finding missing partners to receiving different forms of legal, financial and psychological counseling.
On March 15, six days after Russia bombed a maternity hospital in the southeastern city of Mariupol, the U.N. General Assembly adopted its first resolution on widowhood. The text calls for better data collection, condemnation of violence against widows and protection of their rights, marking a step forward in acknowledging the plight of widowhood.