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The African Woman Foundation

The Plight of Abandoned African Women in Failed Marriages

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The Plight of Abandoned African Women in Failed Marriages — Seeking Ways out

For men and women in many countries across Africa, marriage is almost universal. The marriage duration, however, is markedly unequal. Owing to wide age gaps and lower rates of re-marriage after divorce & widowhood, married lives of women in this region are much shorter.

In the majority of Africa, marriage serves as the only basis for women to gain access to social and economic rights. Unfortunately, upon divorce or widowhood, these are lost.

One in ten women aged above 14 in Africa, said the World Bank, is a widow, and 6% are divorcees. A lot more — the body added — have been widows or divorcees at certain times in their lives. The marital shocks have contributed to propelling the growth in the share of female-headed households in many parts of this region.

Weighing in on the issue of abandoned women in failed marriages in Africa, Asli Demirguc-Kunt, who is Director of Research at the World Bank, stated: “In the face of divorce or widowhood, women often struggle with serious economic hardship.

“Unfortunately, designing effective policies to prevent these women from falling into poverty is hamstrung by sparse data and research.”

Faced with divorce or widowhood, these women have to often grapple with grave economic hardship, in addition to an abrupt drop in economic support and a slew of legal, economic, and social disadvantages.

A typical case of abandoned family in Africa living in privation and squalor


Factors Aiding the Quagmire

In many areas across Africa, there are customary laws, which govern unions and their dissolution, giving privileges to men above women, be it concerning child custody arrangements, inheritance, or property rights. Poverty, low literacy level, out-moded religious and cultural beliefs are among the prevailing factors working together to undermine divorced/widowed African women, leading to their privation and suffering.

Under-developed formal safety nets and insurance mechanisms are not able to bring relief from the shock. Informal systems of support, which comes via the extended family or village, is only able to fill the gap partially.

Indubitably, lying at the heart of the broader struggle for gender equality is the provision of a secure foothold in society for widows and divorcees.

Formulating and implementing policies, like property ownership and inheritance rights reform, widow’s pensions, and customary marriage registration, can help in minimizing the disadvantages, which African widows and divorcees face.

The Impact of Marital Dissolution on African Women’s Wellbeing

For many women, marriage is a dream come true. Yet for some, marriage is motivated by many things in life. In Africa’s poor countries, marriage might — among other reasons — be motivated by a desire to escape poverty.

For others, the escape route from poverty might be in the form of forced child marriage, and because the parents are poor, they look to the commodification of the African woman and girl as a means to turn their lives around positively.

In spite of this, whatever the route or motivation for marriage, a sizeable percentage of marriages in Africa don’t last. That sees thousands of women dumped or abandoned by men in most cases, leaving them with children to fend for, getting little or no from the irresponsible men.

The impact of marital death and divorce, across this continent, is more heavily felt by women that could be excluded socially and lose their home & property when a marriage comes to an end. One in ten women in Africa, aged above 14, is widowed, and 6% are divorced. Furthermore, at some point in their lives, many more have been widowed or are divorcees.

Often, women do not inherit anything when a marriage comes to an end, and there is little recourse offered by conventional legal systems. In a number of areas in this region, some African women even lose their children to their husband’s lineage.

Broader patterns of gender inequality in these places add to the heavy burden these women bear on their shoulders. The poor and disadvantaged women are shut out of labor markets, don’t enjoy much productive assets, and shoulder greater responsibility in caring for their children and the elderly.

Also, divorcees & widows have much more likelihood of suffering other forms of disadvantage. Compared with similar women that are in their 1st union, the two groups experience worse nutritional outcomes on average in all countries in Africa.

For instance, in Southern Africa’s Malawi, widows are five times more likely in comparison with married women — never widowed — to be with HIV. Divorced women aren’t left out.

Commenting on the snafu, a Lead Economist at the World Bank, Dominique van de Walle, remarked: “The prevalence of HIV varies enormously across marital status, with widows having the highest rates of HIV infection in most countries where we have data.

“These women are doubly disadvantaged, and societies often do little to help them cope with this extraordinary challenge.”

Various Forms of the Abandonment of Divorced/Widowed Women in Africa

Some women are abandoned by men after falling victim to the promise of marriage. By the time the woman realizes she has fallen pregnant, it would be quite difficult leaving the relationship without the promised marriage materializing, and the woman is stuck with a baby who grows without a father in their lives.

To some women, they actually get lured in the so-called marriage. They will stay with men for some years only to be abandoned years later, leaving the women with lots of children to care for.

This is much harder for poor women with no sources of income.

Such women in desperation end up more vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence. This also causes many problems for children raised in extreme poverty without a father, with only a poor, stressed, struggling mother with a risk of those kids getting abused themselves at a young age, especially if they are girls.

As for boys, they are more likely to suffer abuse and mentorship by criminal gangs. All because of irresponsible men, who abscond from their duties.

Sadly, once such men abandon one woman, they will still go on in their evil exploits and find other unsuspecting women to impregnate and abandon later on. The cycle goes on and on.

The victims are the innocent women and children as such men never support their women nor children. This leaves the women they impregnate exposed and vulnerable, with children being the casualties.

Sadly, in most African countries, including Zambia, there is no legislation to protect women from predatory men whose only intention is sexually abusing women and leaving them with children they can’t support.

In many Western countries, there is sufficient legislation to protect children from unsupportive, careless, irresponsible men or fathers, including ways such as garnishing wages to channel to the children.

Yet, in most African countries, such men are left to freely roam from one woman to the other, populating the society with more children without taking responsibility.

For some women, these men are not employed, making it difficult to force them to take responsibility for their children. At TAWF, we advocate implementing punitive measures against men, who are predatory preying on women, leaving them stranded and vulnerable.


Case Study: Divorcee Linney Mwaka

Linney Mwaka is a 37-year-old woman born in the western town of Mongu, Zambia. The victim got married at the age of 20 in 2002, after the death of her aunt, who was caring for her.

By the time she got married, she hadn’t completed her education. That saw Linney abandon school pursuits due to a lack of support. She then got married to a man who was her first husband.

After 15 years of marriage, Linney was abandoned by her husband, leaving her with five children with the eldest aged 14 years and the youngest 19 months. Linney has no form of employment.

She survives through engaging in pieces of jobs, such as going to people’s homes to do their laundry.

Linney says most of the time she goes hungry for days with kids, a revelation the very skinny and malnourished appearance of her kids confirmed. She can’t afford three square meals daily let alone sanitary pads.

The divorcee only depending on pieces of cloths she picks from dumpsites to manage her Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). As Linney can’t afford decent housing, she lives in a one-roomed dirty place.

The family of six faces severe economic hardship


With no basic amenities like potable water, power, toilet facilities, she and her five children went through a lot of suffering. The family of six is crammed in the room, with the kids sleeping on the floor.

What is the root cause of her plight? An irresponsible man, who only had children with Linney but is not catering for them. He has moved onto another unsuspecting younger women, leaving Linney deprived and living in squalor.

When Linney approached The African Woman Foundation (TAWF) for assistance, we had to come to her aid — buying her food, getting her clothing items, and other supplies, including sanitary towels.

TAWF is now searching for suitable housing rental for Linney and her children so that they can live in a healthy environment. The kids showed signs of mosquito bites due to the harsh conditions of their current dwellings, with no door.

TAWF’s aid to Linney Mwaka and her children


Linney Mwaka’s case typifies the struggles of African women, who are victims of abandonment and dumping by men. Linney is not alone: Thousands of women suffer the same fate of being sexually used, abused, dumped, and abandoned.

TAWF’s Recommendations to Better the Plight of Disadvantaged Divorcees & Widows in Africa

We recommend the following policies to help address the disadvantages, which abandoned divorced and widowed women grapple with in various parts of Africa.

In several settings across this region, working with the affected women could help in partly solving the problem. In addition to this, it is also vital to engage with the community at large in a broader way and with especially those in power.

According to the World Bank, the right policy measures may help shield divorced and widowed women, who are abandoned in Africa, from the threat of poverty.

The TAWF recommends policies, which can tackle systemic inequalities in African societies, to allow women to provide support for themselves, when faced with marital dissolution, with abandonment by their partner.

Such policies include reforms to credit markets, in which African women are particularly disadvantaged; making sure of equal ownership & inheritance rights for women, securing customary marriages by the use of registration and legal documentation, and other measures.

#Let’s say NO to the abuse of African women and YES to gender equality and treating women with the respect they truly deserve!

Joseph Moyo
Founder: The African Woman Foundation (TAWF)  







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