The hidden lives of child widows

Child widows, some less than ten years old, face bleak futures as they bear the triple disadvantage of gender, marital status, and being underage. Research is now revealing the hidden lives of these children, and it's time to hold governments to account under international law, argues Margaret Owen

When we speak about “widows” there is a general assumption that we are talking about elderly women, and it is elderly widows who have received the most attention from ngos. But widows are of all ages. Some are young mothers, and some are girls as young as eight or nine years old. After more than a decade of campaigning by organisations such as HelpAge International, older women (the majority of whom are widows) recently won UN recognition of their needs when CEDAW required governments to report on the status of older women in their annual reporting to the Committee.

By contrast, the millions of child widows have no such champions. They are mostly to be found, uncounted and unheard, living in remote rural areas, especially in Africa and South Asia where traditions, customs and discriminatory interpretations of religious codes often dominate over any modern age-of-marriage legislation. Widowhood in these contexts is a "social death".

Little reliable data on child widows is available. They have received scant attention from the UN, their governments, or international human rights monitors. Even UNICEF which has programmes designed to reduce child marriages and ensure that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is implemented in UN member states, has failed to make the logical step to address child widowhood.

Yet here we have young girls, widowed as children, some as young as eight years old deprived of their human rights to health, education, protection from sexual violence and economic exploitation. These violations persist in spite of their rights being enshrined in the CRC, the CEDAW and the  Beijing Platform for Action  which have been agreed by almost all UN member states. In the very poorest communities, for example in rural Afghanistan, Ethiopia,Yemen and Tanzania, thousands of little girls have been forcibly married, often before they reach the menarche, and widowed before they reach adulthood. They will have suffered much, physically and psychologically, prematurely pregnant, and giving birth long before their bodies are ready for such events. They have been denied a childhood. With no one to protect them, their futures are bleak as they bear the triple disabilities of gender, marital status, and being underage.

The huge increase in widows of all ages, particularly due to armed conflict, HIV and AIDS,   has  also contributed to an increase in child-marriage, leading inevitably to child widowhood. Widowed mothers cannot afford to maintain their daughters, let alone educate them.  The traditional practices of both “bride price” and dowry operate to the disadvantage of the daughters of widows.  In the first case, the child bride may have greater value than an adult woman, especially in the context of the AIDS pandemic and the myth that the virgin bride can cure AIDS in the husband. The perpetuation of child-marriage and resultant child-widowhood, in the context of extreme rural poverty, is one of the factors in the transmission of the AIDS virus. The younger the girl, the higher her risk of infection. In relation to dowry, a landless, impoverished widow without any assets will have limited choices when looking for a partner for her daughter so that the girl child may be given or sold to a sick, disabled or far older man.

There are as yet only a few statistics on this issue, so hidden are the lifestyles of child widows, and researchers are aware that they may endanger girls they have interviewed by publishing their names and locations. In 2011, Yemi Ipaye made a documentary for the BBC on child widows of Nepal.  She showed in her film how difficult it was to get these children to talk openly about their experiences, and she herself worried that she was putting the young girls’ safety at risk.  For, in describing what was happening to them, they were accusing their dead husband’s family of violence and exploitation. 

Nepal is believed to have one of the highest numbers of child widows in the world, but maybe it is simply one of the few countries where the widows’ organisation Women for Human Rights -Single Women's Group (WHR SWG) has attempted not only count them, but to address their plight with rescue, protection, shelter, food, health care, education  and income-generating schemes. The life-styles of the “bekalayas”, as they are called, are harshly restricted: they cannot wear coloured saris or decorations; they must wear white; they are prohibited from attending festivals or family celebrations like weddings; and they may not eat fish or meat.  WHR-SWG has helped groups of them to defy these discriminatory social customs by setting up widows' self help cooperatives, wear coloured clothes and bangles, as well as joining literacy and training schemes for income-generation, including instruction in non traditional areas of work such as bicycle repairs, mobile phone maintenance and driving.

The common practice of the husband's brother "inheriting" the widow was originally intended to protect a widow and her children, but today, in the context of poverty and AIDS, it has become another form of oppression. A girl widow, unable to return to her birth parents, may end up as a domestic or agriculture slave in her husband’s family. The UN Slavery Fund has just now approved a research project by Forum for Community Change and Development, a widows’ NGO in South Sudan.

In Maniganj, just outside Dhaka, I met very young widows, married as mere children to old widowers. When these elderly men died, the girls suffered physical and sexual abuse from step-sons, were denied any access to property or land and became destitute.  In Dhaka itself, I also met young child widows who had escaped violence from the husband’s family members by migrating to the cities to live in the slums to scavenge, beg, and survive by sex-work.

In Afghanistan, a Human Rights Watch report in 2009 found that 80% of marriages are forced unions with young girls, many as the result of the tradition of badal where parents exchange children at birth, or baad, where a girl is given in compensation for a tort or crime such as a debt, or a murder.

In 2010 Yana Mohammad reported to UNCSW that in rural Iraq prostitution and trafficking rings are targeting widows’ daughters. In both Afghanistan and in Iraq, young girls, including young widows who have offended the culture by fleeing forced re-marriages, can find themselves in prison, without charge.  Officials justify this on the grounds that they are “protecting” the women, for example from the revenge of an "honour killing". A study undertaken by the UN in 2009 on the arbitrary imprisonment of women revealed that in 30 out of 34 Iraqi provinces, women who made a complaint to the authorities were themselves arrested on the grounds of zina (dishonour), and imprisoned, often for years.  In other countries, parents are influenced to arrange early marriage on the justification that is it a means of “protecting” girls from rape, abduction, and kidnap.

The most effective international mechanism to hold governments to
account is CEDAW. In 2010, Widows for Peace through Democracy presented a dossier on discrimination against widows to the CEDAW Committee in Geneva. The dossier referred to child widows and asked for a General Recommendation on Widowhood. We have also applied on behalf of the widows of Tanzania, through the Tanzania Women's Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) to obtain a decision from the Committee for an "Inquiry" ( using the CEDAW Optional Protocol Article 8).  The draft report contains several case studies of child widows and their sufferings, and the full report will be presented to CEDAW in July, 2012. If the CEDAW Committee is convinced by the evidence submitted, it sends investigators to the country and requires its governments to eliminate the discrimination "using all appropriate methods".

Meanwhile, at the UN Commission on the Status of Women currently  underway in New York, four partner organisations - Widows for Peace through Democracy (UK), Women for Human Rights - Single Women group (Nepal), The Women's Development Organisation, Enugu (Nigeria) and Guild of Service (India ) - will  hold a roundtable on 'Rural Widows: inheritance, land and property rights; roles, needs, access to services and justice'. We will be highlighting the tragedy of the neglected child widows who have no big organisations to speak up for them, to reveal the conditions of their lives, and galvanise governments to address the human rights violations perpetrated against them. 

About the author

Margaret Owen is a barrister and the founder and president of Widows for Peace through Democracy