The word 'widow' reverberates in our mind in form of a middle aged woman wearing a white saree, when in reality this tragedy could occur at any age, especially in the Indian subcontinent where child marriage is happening frequently. Childhood is a delicate period, and for a child widow mother, it gets extremely challenging as she needs to ensure food, education, nutrition and safety for her baby where she could not manage those same things for her own.
Sharifa Akter, a resident of coastal Koyra Upazilla, could vividly remember the moment when she first heard the news of her husband's accident which led to his death within a couple of hours. That incident sunk her into unfathomable pain and still haunts her today even after five years. It was an unimaginable situation for a 17-year old teen whose newborn was only three months old. Sharifa's family tried to re-marry her but couldn't find anyone who would accept her with a child from a previous marriage.
Afterwards Sharifa faced situations which were very obvious for a child widow in Bangladeshi context. She was cheated out of inheritance and evicted from her husband's property along with her offspring.
In spite of these injustices, the in-laws' families of such wronged child brides live with impunity as it is impossible for a teen mother to go through complicated legal systems or at least raise her voice. Hurdles are not limited to economic crisis only; it also includes overt vulnerability to abuse and violence.
The young child widows face unsolicited attention and sexual harassments. The emotional and financial strain of a husband's death, fear of sexual and physical violence and the pressure to foster children all alone contribute to push the girls into clinical depression in maximum cases.
I felt instantly connected with Sharifa's condition as I grew up hearing my grandmother's struggling stories, who got married off at the age of 13 and became a widow at 21 back in 1970. She did not wear jewelry or any fancy clothes after my grandfather's assassination, not for the lack of financial stability but because of mainstream society wanted her to do nothing but be filled with bereavement. This dehumanising mourning practice and marginalising the widow by expectations are a form of power and control men exercise in a patriarchal society which is present even in this millennium era after 50 years.
Girls who experience failed marriage face similar distresses like a child widow. Shukhi Khatun from Sirajganj is one of them who dreamt to be a school teacher whose dream evaporated after she was compelled to embrace marriage at the age of 16. Again, she started weaving dreams, but this time for a happy conjugal life.
Unbeknownst to Shukhi, her husband was already having an affair and was adamant to continue even after their child's birth. Afterwards she got brutally tortured and divorced due to the inability of her parents to meet the commitment of dowry. She was sent back to parents' home with her 1.5 years old boy. Shukhi lost both of her parents within the next four years and now lives as a single parent for her 12 years old child. Dreams do not gyre around her anymore as now life feels like a pandemonium where she is incarcerated forever.
Ordeals of widows or divorcees like Shukhi and Sharifa are the direct consequences of child marriage. Despite of the international and national child marriage law, about half of all Bangladeshi girls are married by the age of 15, and 60% become mothers by 19, according to UNICEF. Another report of Plan international depicts 85 percent marriage has taken place because of the guardians' concern for their daughters' safety and future, school closure is responsible for 71 percent and penury facilitated 61 percent of marriages.
A major number of child brides face health complications for early pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, malnutrition and anemia. Girls who marry young usually drop out of school, remain uneducated and fail to break the cycle of poverty. You may think that if the poor parents could learn the detrimental effects, it might help to reduce the child marriage rate.
It has been two decades of campaigning by both government and NGO officials against this malpractice and despite knowing what the child bride could go through, parents still tend to marry off their kid as soon as they can. The major reason here is 'economic crisis' and 'lack of security' for a young girl. When that girl becomes a widow or divorcee, these same two factors strike her most and this time she has to fight alone (even worse if the girl bears a child).
Global widows report 2015 estimates that there are over 1.36 million child widows globally though the true numbers are much higher due to the unreported nature of illegal child marriages. In Bangladesh, marginalised parents falsify the girl's age before wedding to avoid legal hassles which also helps them to skip any sort of surveillance from the authority. When the marriage fails, the partner dies or the bride faces persistent abuse, all of it remains unrecognized and the girl continues to bear the brunt silently.
Multi-sectoral National plan of action is initiated by the government to reduce one third portion of child marriage by 2021 and eradicate it by 2041. Although there are no actions taken nationally yet to rehabilitate the widows or divorcees who are under 18. These groups might be small in number compared to adult widows albeit there is no justification to exclude them from authorized acknowledgements. Interventions are required to strengthen this vulnerable group, like providing safe livelihood opportunities, capacity building training, income generating programs etc.
Losing a life partner itself is a traumatising experience which becomes tougher for a child bride and worse if she had any children, all before turning even 18. Widowhood or being divorced for a young mother is a never-ending misery which she must suffer till deathbed if they remain unacknowledged by the local authority and government officials.
Only economic empowerment can embolden these girls to secure a healthy future for their children and gain autonomy by reducing dependency on family members. Certainly, we cannot reverse the sufferings of Sharifa Akter, Shukhi Khatun or the similar victims of child marriages but we can definitely secure the rest of their lives from misery and hopelessness.
Sadia Nasrin is a freelance Evaluation Consultant
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.