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5 Things You Should Know About Widows’ Rights in the MENA Region

Today, 23 June, is International Widows Day, a day to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to galvanize the unique support that they need. According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, with nearly one in ten living in extreme poverty. Learn more about how widows are uniquely impacted by discriminatory laws across the Middle East and North Africa. 

1. What challenges do widows face in the Middle East and North Africa?

Widows in the MENA region face significant challenges, including limited inheritance rights, social stigmatization, and difficulties in securing child custody. In many countries, widows are often denied their rightful inheritance and left without financial support, exacerbating their vulnerability. These issues stem from deeply entrenched cultural and legal norms that often prioritize male family members over female ones.

Social stigmatization further compounds these difficulties. Widows are often viewed with suspicion or pity, leading to social isolation and diminished social standing. This stigma can restrict their ability to remarry or engage in economic activities, further limiting their opportunities for financial independence.

Securing child custody can be particularly challenging for widows in the MENA region. In many countries, custody laws favor paternal relatives, including over widowed mothers, especially if they lack financial resources or the country they live in has a system of male guardianship. In most cases, the custody of the children goes to the grandfather.  This not only potentially separates mothers from their children but also places the children in potentially less nurturing environments. Traditionally, a woman’s male guardian from birth is her father and once she is married her husband becomes her guardian. In other cases, such as when a woman’s father or husband has died, a brother or even her son may serve as her male guardian. 

2. How do inheritance laws discriminate against widows?

In countries around the world, inheritance laws are skewed against women.  According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2024 report surveying 190 countries, 43 countries do not grant widows the same inheritance rights as widowers. Social norms and legal loopholes often result in widows being deprived of their deceased spouse’s assets, leaving them in financial hardship. 

For instance, women struggle to receive their rightful inheritance in the MENA region. Women’s inheritance rights in this region are often severely restricted by traditional interpretations of Islamic law, which generally allocate a smaller share of inheritance to women compared to men. For instance, daughters typically receive half the share of sons, and widows may receive only a fraction of their late husband’s estate. 

In practice, widows are frequently denied even this limited inheritance due to familial pressure to give it up, legal loopholes, and bureaucratic obstacles. This lack of financial support leaves many widows in precarious economic situations, struggling to provide for themselves and their children.

According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, these discriminatory practices are codified in the laws of many MENA countries, perpetuating gender inequality and financial instability for women. A World Bank study in 2019 highlighted that only a minority of women in these regions receive the inheritance stipulated by law, due to familial pressure and legal obstacles.

3. Why are laws on the division of marital property important?

The division of marital property is crucial for protecting widows’ rights and ensuring they are not left destitute. Strengthening legal frameworks to protect these rights is essential. In our recent publication, The Distribution of Marital Property after the End of a Marriage under International and Islamic Law, Nasser El-Rayes, emphasizes that:

“In many countries, the woman’s ability to exercise her property rights can be severely limited by legal precedents or custom. Even when these rights are legally upheld, the man often manages the property during the marriage or upon divorce.”

Equality Now works with partners in MENA, Africa, and around the world to advocate for reforms that ensure equitable distribution of marital assets, which can provide widows with the financial stability they need to support themselves and their families.

4. How are widows affected by the unequal family laws in the MENA region?

Layla, from Egypt, was deprived of all her rights after her husband’s death. “I lost not just my husband, but also my support system and financial rights,” she recalls.

Widows often face challenges in custody issues especially the ones related to children’s inheritance. Layla married in her twenties and had five children. She traveled with her husband, who worked as a lab doctor in a major hospital in the Arabian Gulf. Layla worked hard and contributed to establishing their marital home, depositing her earnings into a joint bank account with her husband.

When her husband passed away, his family refused to give her any inheritance money and insisted that she marry her deceased husband’s younger brother, who was twenty years her junior. Layla refused this marriage and fought for many years to secure her and her children’s rights.

Layla continued to pursue legal battles for years to obtain support and maintenance for her children. Despite all her efforts, she only received funds through court cases, leading to a constant legal struggle to ensure a decent life for her children.

5. What reforms are needed to support widows?

Addressing these issues requires comprehensive legal reforms to ensure equitable inheritance rights, efforts to combat social stigmatization, and policies that support widows’ economic empowerment and child custody rights.

The following reforms are essential to support widows:

  • Strengthen Inheritance Laws: Ensure women receive their rightful, equal share.
  • Support Legal Reforms: Once reformed, implement laws that protect widows’ inheritance, property, and custody rights.
  • Raise Awareness: Challenge the social stigmas faced by widows.

Legal frameworks must be aligned with international standards, including for example the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Maputo Protocol and the 2022 General Assembly Resolution on the Situation of Widows, to protect all women and girls experiencing widowhood. Ensuring gender equality in family law is crucial for creating a more just and equitable society.

Equality Now works with partners around the world to address discrimination in family law.  We are a founding Coordination Committee Member and the secretariat of the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, currently the secretariat of the Hurra Coalition, which is working to address unequal family laws in the MENA region, and co-convenors of the Africa Family Law Network.


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