There are 245 million widows in the world, yet their problems are often ignored. Today, on the first International Widows Day, I hope to break the silence of their suffering in order to support them to play an active and positive role in building their families and their communities.
Widows, all over the world, are a particularly vulnerable group. This is a subject very close to my heart because prejudice against widowhood provokes a large proportion of violence and discrimination against women everywhere. Allow me to challenge a few stereotypes. When I talk about the world's 245 million widows, I am not talking about elderly women. All across the world, widows are often women in the prime of life, young women who are left as sole carers for their children, alone responsible for their shelter, food, schooling and well-being.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic and armed conflicts continue to wreak havoc across the world, widows are getting younger and facing tougher challenges. Many of these women face harsh discrimination and social exclusion on account of their marital status, which compounds the discrimination they already face on account of their gender. Positive steps have been taken in some parts of the world to address this situation, but there is still a long way to go.
115 million widows still live in extreme poverty. In many cases, their children have to leave school to go to work to plug the gap in the household income left by their father's death; their daughters in particular are therefore often at a high risk of sexual exploitation. Worldwide, more than 500 million children of widows live in hostile environments and more than 1.5 million of these children die before the age of five. Widows' poverty, depriving their children of aspiration, education and future employment, affects the whole of society. It is a silent humanitarian crisis.
Today, on International Widows Day, we must ask ourselves what is to be done so that women can build a brighter future for their children and so that widows in particular, whose children are often most at risk, are supported effectively. Supporting widows catalyses a developmental multiplier effect, generating wide social and economic benefits in their societies. It impacts directly on poverty, on their children's education, on gender equality, on child mortality, on maternal health, and on the spread of HIV/AIDS -- 6 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals.
As women gain knowledge, children learn. As women become employed, economies grow. As women are given equality, nations become stronger, and justice and equity across the board become attainable. Research by The Africa Partnership Forum has shown that had more women been educated and employed, Africa's economies would have doubled in size over the last 30 years. The simple truth is that for every year of schooling a mother has received the likelihood that her child dies as an infant declines by 10%. To support women, then, is to support their children; and to support vulnerable women is to support even more vulnerable children.
These statistics reveal the true value of enabling families to support one another. I believe that families are the glue that holds societies together, they create strong foundations on which to build, and they are the structures that help economic growth filter throughout the whole of society. Supporting widows strengthens society's human tissue, keeping families strong even when they are broken by the death of a loved one.
As we work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, we need to initiate a new global dialogue on widows and their children. Starting this dialogue is the purpose of the conference on the First International Widows Day, organized today by UN Women and the Republic of Gabon. Its theme is 'Widows: their plight, their rights, their future'. We seek to build new and innovative partnerships and to share best practice in this field, to fully acknowledge the lynchpin role our world's widows play in addressing many of our shared social challenges. They have a unique contribution to make in unleashing the potential of our youth, empowering them to build a brighter future for us all.
Sylvia Bongo Ondimba is the First Lady of the Republic of Gabon, a country of 1.5 million people in Central Africa. She is a vocal advocate of women's and children's rights.