Widows hold hands in Chapaguan, Nepal
CNN  — 

The UN calls them the “invisible women.”

In many countries, they’re forced into marriage to retain their social status. In some cultures, they’re stigmatized. And around the world, millions of them live in poverty and endure violence.

They are widowed women. And from the USA to Kenya to Nepal, they often find themselves lacking support, both emotionally and economically.

Too often, their plight goes unnoticed. But despite the challenges, they find unlikely sources of strength.

Today, on International Widows Day, seven widows around the world share their stories of grief, loss and survival.

These are their stories, in their own words. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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Santu Kamari Maharjan, 55, Nepal

“When I was 32, my husband was diagnosed with kidney failure and I had to sell our field for his treatment. After he died, I faced a great deal of hardship. My children were very small and surviving each day was really tough. We’d been married since I was 19, I was grieving, but I had to get up and earn some money, I had to work in other people’s fields so I could clothe and feed my children. It was torture, but I couldn’t give up for my children.

As a widow, I faced discrimination. If I spoke, everyone would laugh and clap at me. I was harassed by my own sister-in-laws – they taunted me about running away with another man and marrying again in secret. I didn’t have a choice but to just tolerate it. I didn’t have anyone to talk to or to help me. I felt ashamed and desperate.

When the 2015 earthquake struck, I was inside my home eating a meal. I closed my eyes and had to wait for the ground to stop shaking before I could escape. My house collapsed later on and all of my belongings were buried. My situation had been scary enough before, but then it got worse. I realized I had even less than before. I felt lower than I ever had. I was heartbroken, my house was all I had. Everything I owned was gone in seconds.

I didn’t have any income after the earthquake. All of the villages collected food and shared it around. The relief efforts giving out materials prioritized the people who could go out and speak, mainly men. Single women couldn’t go, we weren’t allowed to ask for what we needed. If a woman is single, she will be told to keep quiet because she doesn’t have a husband.

After the earthquake, a non-profit organization called Women for Human Rights helped 15 of us to build a bamboo shelter so we could start up an agriculture business. They provided us with pipes for water supplies, buckets and so on. We work hard to help ourselves, and one another. It feels good to be earning an income for ourselves after all the challenges we have faced.”

As told to Womankind Worldwide.

Shams El Salem, 50, and Nazla Muhammed Al Hanfish, 53, Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Shams El Salem

“In 2002, my husband got bone cancer. It only took the disease two years to kill him.

My husband left me with three children; two girls and one boy. I was alone in Syria in his village, and I barely knew his relatives. I depended on my husband for so many things. He was sick for two years. But had I known he wouldn’t get better, I would have asked him to teach me about everything around the house. There were so many chores that only he knew how to do. But you understand what it’s like when someone you love dearly gets sick? You refuse to believe that he will die. So, I never asked.

When my husband was alive, I didn’t need anyone but him. Now, I feel like I’m a burden on our relatives. Even though they help me out, they still treat me differently. I didn’t know how to feed the children. I didn’t know where to go and who to ask for help. I was completely lost. I felt as if I was alone in this world.

Now, all the women around me have their husbands with them – except for me. Their husbands found their families a place to live in Lebanon. Their husbands work and pay the rent. I had to figure this out on my own. My son helped, but he got married and he has his own family to worry about. I am in debt, and I don’t know how I will be paying it off.”

Nazla Muhammed Al Hanfish

“My husband died during his sleep. He had a deadly stroke. I prefer not to remember this evil day. I woke up and I found him very pale. I later discovered that he had no pulse and had passed away.

It was a huge loss for me. He was the dearest person to my heart. It felt like the end of our family life. Becoming a widow overnight is one of the hardest things that can happen to any woman’s life. I used to close the door and cry alone.

I was a woman with no man. I prefer not to talk about how strangers treated me. But our family in Raqqa, even though it’s small, helped out as much as they could. But there is a limit to what you can ask from them and what they can offer.

I had seven children. Everything changed. Everything. The first two years were bad. But then the war in Syria started, and we live in Raqqa. Things got even worse for my family, especially when my son died in the war. He was 19 years old.

The thought that ‘This is life’ helped me get through the pain. I cannot nag for the rest of my life and ask God ‘Why me?’ I needed to understand that we can’t control what happens to us. We only need to cope.

You have no idea how hard it was to make the decision to leave Raqqa and move to Lebanon — how hard the road was and how difficult it was to find shelter. As for my survival in Lebanon, it is still tricky, but thank God my daughters are working and I am receiving assistance from World Vision.”

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Artis Henderson, 37, USA

“My husband, Miles Henderson, an army pilot, was killed in an Apache helicopter crash in Iraq on November 6, 2006. He was 24-years-old. I was notified the next day. It’s always two soldiers in dressed uniform. They have to follow a script. So they said, “On behalf of the President of the United States we regret to inform you that your husband Miles Henderson has been killed.”

I feel like unless you’ve experienced this sort of stuff, that sort of quick tragedy, it’s so hard to know. It’s like everything in the world shifts. I spent the first year just trying to breathe. I was drowning in that grief.

I always remember so clearly, this woman – another widow who was a little further, maybe six months ahead of me in the process – saying to me, ‘You will be disappointed to find out what happens after the first year.’

And I remember saying, ‘Well, what happens?’

And she said, ‘There’s another year.’

That first year, that had never occurred to me because I was just trying to survive. But then, sort of into my second year I realized, ‘Oh, this sort of goes on forever.’

I think it’s lessened now. I’m not actively grieving, even though it still hurts to talk about. But, I think I had the impression that after enough time I would go back to the way I was before he died, but I think that doesn’t happen.

I will say that I have found an amazing community through the military survivors network. Mainly because when a soldier is killed overseas, there are so many really specific things that happen that someone outside the military wouldn’t know about.

So, we have this really common language about, you know, ‘How were you notified?’ and ‘Was the body viewable?’ and ‘Did you request the autopsy report?’ It’s really grim stuff that I think civilians maybe don’t have to deal with in the same way. So, I’m grateful to have that community of military widows who I always know I can reach out to, and they’re there.”

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Sarla Devi Sharma, 75, India

“My husband was old and he got frail and sick and eventually died.

My first husband sold me off to a man with six kids along with my daughter for Rs. 20,000 [$310]. After five years, he came to take me back, but people around me started making comments [about the situation] and the second man to whom I was sold married me. 

My second husband took good care of me when he was alive. He gave me a dignified life and a name in society. 

However, after his death, his children and my only daughter started beating and abusing me, threatened me with dire consequences, and forced me to sign property papers. I used to cry, but the children were not moved by my plight. They wanted me to move out of the house. 

It felt terrible, because life changed at the drop of a hat. The position and respect that was given to me was snatched away from me and I was stricken with all kinds of grief.

Words cannot explain the grief that I have experienced. My heart breaks when I think of that pain, nobody can understand what I have gone through. I cry thinking about how my own children treated me. I was old, frail and illiterate. I used to pray to God that some angel would come from somewhere and take me away from this pain.

In a country like India, a young widow can get married and have a life of change whereas an old widow is thrown into a life of hell.

Maitrighar [a home for widows run by the charity Maitri, where Sarla now lives] has helped me overcome all the pain. I never feel lonely or alone here, and the environment here gives me solace and makes me remember my childhood days.”

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Grace Njeri Mwichigi, 52, Kenya

“I was widowed 10 years ago after my husband, John Mwichigi, was murdered during the tribal clashes in our country in 2007. In the initial weeks and months after the death of my spouse I had a lot of stress, confusion and fear. I have been neglected and humiliated in many ways by family members.

My experience of grief is struggle and hardships in order to overcome the challenges. I feel lonely with nobody to share life with. God, encouragement from some good friends and church members have helped me to get through the pain of my loss.

Other people sometimes think about being widowed as just a usual way of living, without stress, neglect, humiliation or loneliness. But to be a widow in my country, you will be neglected by relatives, isolated by people, oppressed and denied your rights by family members, society and local government officials.”

Purita Carlos, 55, Phillippines

“My husband died of lung cancer. He was a chain smoker.

We brought my husband to Manila because he was sick. It was discovered that he had a Stage IV lung cancer. He was given three months to live. Our son who was in grade 4 that time had to stop going to school because we had to stay in Manila for almost a year. It was a confusing time for me because we lost the family’s bread winner.

I was confused. I did not know what to do for myself and my child’s future. I did not want to go out. I only left my house to go to church.

I had to learn how to earn a living. I learned the trade of buying and selling. When I went to Manila, I would buy things from there then sell them to my neighbors at home. It helped that my husband had social security pension.

Being a widow is not easy. It is very sad, and the pain of missing your husband is always there. I don’t want to go through the same experience again. That is why I would not ever remarry. It is enough that I have my son.”