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A widow is a woman whose spouse has died, while a widower is a man in that situation. The state of having lost one's spouse to death is termed widowhood. These terms are not applied to a person after he or she becomes divorced from their former spouse, though they may sometimes be used after the former spouse has died.
This term "widowhood" 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 compared to those received by widowers globally has spurred an interest in the issue by human rights activists.
In societies where the husband is the sole provider, his death can leave his family destitute. The tendency for women generally to outlive men can compound this, since men in many societies marry women younger than themselves. In some patriarchal societies, widows may 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. Along with the ability to ascend socio-economically, widows—who were "presumably celibate"—were much more able (and likely) to challenge conventional sexual behaviour 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, a practice that has since died out. 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 Christian immigrants may wear lifelong black in the United States to signify their widowhood and 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 a woman 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."
As of 2004, women in United States who were "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 continue to be much more severe. However, the United Nations 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.
Effects of Widowhood
A variable that is actually deemed important and relative to the effects of widowhood is the gender of the widow. Research was shown that the difference falls in the burden of care, expectations, and finally how the react after their passing. For example, women carry more a burden than men and are less willing to want to go through this again. After a passing, however, men and women can react very differently and frequently have a change in lifestyle. A study has been done in order to show that women are more likely to yearn for their late husband if he were to be taken away suddenly from her. Men on the other hand tend to be more likely to long for their late wife if she were to pass away after suffering a long, terminal illness.
Another change that happens to most men is that their lifestyle habits become worse. For example, without a wife there, he is probably more likely to not watch what he eats like he would if she were there. Instead of having to make something himself, it is more of a convenience just to order take-out. Women do have a change in lifestyle, but they typically don't have the problem of eating foods that are bad for her. Instead, women are typically more known to lose weight due to lack of eating. This is likely to be caused as a side effect of depression.
Grief's Journey (focuses on spousal loss)
American Widow Project
Sixteen widows share their stories
Help and tips for Widows and Widowers
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) (online)
India's invisible widows, divorcees and single women – BBC, March 7, 2014.
"Nothing to Go Back To: The Fate of the Widows of Vrindavan, India" – Women News Network, November 5, 2007.
A story about Indian widows from CNN.com, July 5, 2007.
Ill-treatment of Widows in India, February 9, 2014.