The Right of the Child: The Intersectional Dilemma of Widowed Children
As the 90th session of the Commission on the Rights of the Child gets under way, it is of the utmost importance to reflect on the lack of awareness surrounding the situation of child widows. A child widow refers to a young girl who has been subject to both child marriage and widowhood before the age of eighteen. The intersectional nature of their social standing means they are subject to multiple, intersecting atrocities with little protection of their human rights. Poverty, illiteracy and youth all combine to create an unimaginably difficult situation for these young girls, leaving them susceptible to issues including sex trafficking or child pornography.
Inheritance laws that often work against widows leaves these children homeless and impoverished, whilst also being subject to inhumane widowhood rites practices. These practices are most prominent in rural areas of Africa and South Asia. Equally, these areas often interpret religious codes to allow for child marriage thus meaning this cohort of children have already experienced human rights abuses before the added axis of oppression from widowhood is even introduced. Little reliable data is available on child widows. The UN, national governments and NGOs have all done little to target this unique issue. Even UNICEF who aims to reduce child marriages still has not made a meaningful effort to address child widowhood.
The economic exploitation faced by child widows is perpetuated by their age. Their lack of life experience often means predatory males are more likely to target them and force them into industries such as child pornography. With little to no financial support to provide other options, limited years spent in education, and the naivety of youth, child widows are more likely to be exploited for sexual and economic purposes. The immense rise in widowhood (of all ages) can be attributed to armed conflict, HIV and AIDS has contributed to the increase in child marriages, widowed mothers often are not financially stable enough to pay a dowry. In the context of HIV, the myth persists that virgin brides can cure a husband’s aids, thus meaning a dowry is more likely to be waived for children, resulting in higher levels of child brides. The ritual of the ‘inheritance’ of the widow by the husband’s brother intended to protect the widow and her children however has had the opposite effect. With the added disadvantage of youth, child widows often end up as domestic slaves to her husband’s family.
Nepal is said to have the largest number of child widows (however, the lack of data means this cannot be confirmed). However, Nepal’s Demographic Health Survey found that over 63 per cent of girls marry before 18, with 7 per cent marrying before the age of 10. In Nepal, child widows are referred to as ‘bekalya’ and are subject to harsh social exclusion. They are banned from wearing new or colourful clothes, eating fish or meat, remarrying, and often banned from showing their face early in the morning, for fear of bad luck. Nepal ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990 and is released their State party’s report in 2022 regarding their progress. This can be found at the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies website.
The importance of grassroots organisations in the fight against child widowhood must not be understated. Their ability to educate and protect child widows on the ground, as well as campaigning to stop child marriage will help achieve the equality and protection that this cohort deserves. At Widows for Peace through Democracy, we aim to give these grass roots organisations a voice at the international level, ensuring that they are given the resources and the platform to raise awareness about this tragic issue.
Heather Rainey – WPD Intern.
Heather Rainey is a politics student at the University of Edinburgh, and intern and Widows for Peace through Democracy.
As a researcher, Heather has aided the Scottish Parliament in research on Domestic Violence legislation.
She has previously worked for Lawyers Without Borders – student division and interned for the WFWPI Un Office Geneva.