Widowed mothers: MMM calls for addressing the distinct challenges they face


UN Geneva, Human Rights Council - MMM was invited to contribute to a side-event organised by Widows Rights International to discuss the unique challenges faced by widows who are mothers, while continuing to shoulder childcare and educational responsibilities.

Our presentation, delivered by Valerie Bichelmeier, MMM Vice President and head of the UN team, highlighted the following key points:

Widowed mothers face a dual challenge: coping with the loss of a spouse or partner and finding themselves suddenly bearing the responsibilities of parenthood alone. Understanding their specific struggles and hardships as both widows and lone mothers is crucial for providing the support they need.

They face emotional and psychological challenges and financial hardships, but also other less obvious issues like social stigmatisation and administrative hurdles.

Emotional and psychological challenges

Widowed mothers must first not only navigate their own grief but also support their children’s emotional needs – a dual burden, which can be overwhelming. As a result, widowed mothers face an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. The stress of single parenting and financial pressures can exacerbate mental health problems.

Financial Hardships

The death of a spouse often means the loss of a primary or secondary income, leading to financial instability and insecurity, or even poverty.

We know that mothers who are alone face particular deficits both in terms of time and money, and a higher risk of poverty compared to two-parent families. In a patriarchal society, divorce, separation and widowhood are among the key factors that can leave women economically worse-off, especially when they have children to care for, and even more so if they have been caring full time for their children. As the US feminist Gloria Steinem once remarked, “if women have young children, most are only one man away from welfare.”

In addition, around the world, cultural practices and legal barriers can mean that widows are cut off from social protection or unable to inherit money or property from their spouse or partner. For example, research in Malawi shows that when a man dies, the property he leaves behind may be ‘grabbed’ and/or its use rights may be disputed by his wider family, leaving the widow and her children without any property and forcing her to leave her marital village and place of residence.

As lone mothers, widowed mothers also face employment challenges. Like any mother, they face specific discriminations and barriers in accessing the labour market, in wages and career development; but this so-called “motherhood penalty” is exacerbated for lone mothers. Balancing work and childcare can be difficult for any mother; but it is a real challenge for lone mothers, who cannot share the care with a partner or spouse. A lone mother often needs flexible or part-time work – with low pay, especially when she has young children under her full responsibility.

Other challenges

Widowed mothers can face social stigma and isolation both as widows and as lone mothers, more so in certain cultural and religious contexts. Community support may dwindle after the initial mourning period. Without a partner, widowed mothers may lack a support system to help with childcare and household responsibilities.

Lastly, a migrant widowed mother and her children can face specific legal and administrative hurdles, which include access to social benefits or health services, or even their right to remain in the country.

Widowed mothers also have specific strengths

In spite of all these challenges, widowed mothers often develop remarkable resilience, adapting to new roles and responsibilities with determination and strength: they are often willing to stand and fight for the sake of their children. They can then serve as powerful role models for their children, demonstrating perseverance, independence, and the ability to overcome adversity.

Many widowed mothers have also become active in their communities, seeking out and creating support networks for themselves and others in similar situations.

Our call for action

In addition to all the laws and policies that can be implemented to support unpaid care work generally, and to address more specifically the challenges of parenting/mothering alone, key measures and policies to support widowed mothers include:

  • Offering accessible mental health resources and services, including counselling and support groups specifically for widowed parents
  • Ensuring that heritage laws and practices do not financially deprive widows, especially when they have child care responsibilities
  • Establishing community centres and programs that offer childcare, social activities, and support networks – Mother centres as promoted by our associate member MINE in particular can be a great source of resources and support for any mother, but particularly for lone mothers, including those who are widows

However, what is most needed is to give visibility to the situation of both lone mothers and widows through data. 2015 estimates by the Loomba Foundation put the global number of widows at 258 million – not accounting for those who have remarried. But just like for lone mothers, there are no reliable statistics on widows. In most countries, household surveys provide no information on the status of the single person heading a household beyond the fact that it is a male or female-headed household. In addition, those statistics do not tell the whole story: widows or lone mothers often live in extended family households, which contributes to their invisibility.

Only when we have reliable statistics on motherhood and widowhood can we really assess the magnitude of the issues and address their challenges – especially when these intersect like for mothers who are widows.


Organised by Widows Rights International with the support of Graduate Women International, Latter-Day Saint Charities, Soroptimist International and the NGO Committee on the Status of Women Geneva, the event took place on Wednesday 19th June at the UN in Geneva on the margins of the 56th session of the Human Rights Council.

Event’s flyer


From the left: Berthe de Vos, Soroptimist International, Eric Rottermann, LDS Charities; Zarin Hainsworth, WRI; Alejandro Bonilla, Greycells; Valerie Bichelmeier, MMM; Stacy Dry Lara, GWI


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