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A widow is a woman whose spouse has died, while a widower is a man whose spouse has died. The state of having lost one's spouse to death is termed widowhood. This term can be used for either sex, at least according to some dictionaries, but the word widowerhood is also listed in some dictionaries. Occasionally, the word viduity is used. The adjective form for either sex is widowed. The treatment of widows around the world varies, but unequal benefits and treatment generally received by widows versus widowers globally has spurred an interest in the issue by human rights activists.
In societies where the husband was the sole provider, his death could leave his family destitute. The tendency for women to generally outlive men can compound this,, since men in many societies marry women younger than themselves. In some patriarchal societies, widows could maintain economic independence. A woman would carry on her spouse's business and be accorded certain rights, such as entering guilds. More recently, widows of political figures have been among the first women elected to high office in many countries, such as Corazón Aquino or Isabel Martínez de Perón.
In 19th century Britain, widows had greater opportunity for social mobility than in many other societies. Also, along with the ability to ascend socio-economically, women who were "presumably celibate" were much more able (and likely) to challenge conventional sexual behavior than married women in their society.
In some parts of Europe, including Russia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, and Spain, widows used to wear black for the rest of their lives to signify their mourning. This mourning ritual does not remain in practice. Many immigrants from these cultures to the United States as recently as the 1970s have loosened this strict standard of dress to only two years of black garments. However, Orthodox immigrants may wear lifelong black in the U.S. to signify their widowhood and their devotion to their deceased husband.
In other cultures, however, widowhood is much stricter and unarguably more demeaning to women's rights. Often, women are required to remarry within the family of their late husband after a period of mourning. With the rise of HIV/AIDS levels of infection across the globe, rituals to which women are subjected in order to be "cleansed" or accepted into her new husband's home make her susceptible to the psychological adversities that may be involved as well as imposing health risks.
It is often necessary for women to comply with the social customs of her area because her fiscal stature depends on it, but this custom is also often abused by others as a way to keep money within the patriarchal family. It is also uncommon for widows to challenge their treatment because they are often "unaware of their rights under the modern law…because of their low status, and lack of education or legal representation."
In the U.S., as of 2004, women who are "widowed at younger ages are at greatest risk for economic hardship." Similarly, married women who are in a financially unstable household are more likely to become widows "because of the strong relationship between mortality [of the male head] and wealth [of the household]." In underdeveloped and developing areas of the world, conditions for widows are much more severe still. However, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ("now ratified by 135 countries"), while slow, is working on proposals which will make certain types of discrimination and treatment of widows (such as violence and withholding property rights) illegal in the countries that have joined CEDAW.
In India, there is often an elaborate ceremony during the funeral of a widow's husband, including smashing the bangles, removing the bindi as well as any colourful attire, and requiring the woman to wear white clothes, the colour of mourning. Earlier it was compulsory to wear all white after the husband was dead, and even a tradition known as sati was practiced, in which the newly widowed woman would throw her body onto her husband's burning funeral pyre and immolate herself.
However, in modern culture, the norms for clothing have gradually given way to coloured clothing. Sati practice has been banned in India for more than a century. The ban began under British rule and is much owed to the persistence of the social reformer Ram Mohan Roy, who asserted that sati was a means of showing status rather than a universal ritual in India, and said that "there are other ways of doing it than by burning wives." 
Certain matrilinear communities, the most notable being the Nairs from Kerala allow and even encourage widow remarriage. In these societies, children retain the family name of the mother, and women were permitted to divorce and remarry if they wished.
Vrindavan is known as the "City of Widows" because of the many widows who move into the town and its surrounding area. According to some Hindu traditions, upper-caste widows may not remarry, so many of those abandoned by their families on the death of their husband make their way here. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 widows living on the streets, many of whom have spent over 30 years there. In exchange for singing bhajan hymns for 7–8 hours in bhajanashrams, women are given a cup of rice and a pittance of money (around Rs.10), which they try to supplement by begging on the streets. An organization called Guild of Service was formed to assist these deprived women and children. In 2000, the organization opened Amar Bari (My Home), a refuge for 120 Vrindavan widows, and a second shelter for 500 widows is expected to open.
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