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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.
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