“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exodus 22:22–24). In this passage, two things can be observed. First, the command that forbids the mistreatment of widows and orphans. Second, the consequences of mistreating widows and orphans.

Africa’s adherence to this command demands an understanding of the forms of mistreatment that widows and orphans are often subjected to on our continent. The purpose of this article is to highlight what happens to widows and orphans in Africa when the husband and father of the family dies. This article has two basic segments. The first segment concerns widow-hood, and the second concerns orphan-hood.


 The magnitude of the problem

There are two things that indicate the magnitude of the problem of widowhood in Africa. The first is the number of widows in Africa. Widows make up a big percentage of the women population in Africa. Wajala Wafula, in the article “The Ordeal of Widowhood of Africa,” notes that, “…widows constitute a large proportion of the adult female population in African communities.”[1]

The second thing that shows the magnitude of the problem of widow-hood in Africa is the factors contributing to the problem. The following are the factors that have contributed to the problem of widow-hood in Africa.[2]

  • War
  • Genocide
  • Terrorism
  • Disease (especially HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria)
  • Work accidents
  • Young age of girls/women at marriage
  • Female longevity

The fate of widows

In Africa, two words describe the fate of a woman once her husband has died, “Social death.”[3] Social death means that when a husband dies, the woman does not just lose the main breadwinner and supporter of the children, but she also loses her status and is consigned to the very end of society where she suffers the most extreme forms of mistreatment.

In this condition of social death, the mistreatment that widows suffer includes the following:

The first is discrimination and stigma. An article on “The Plight of a Widow in Zambia” notes, “To be widowed in Zambia is a terrible and dreadful experience. It is like being sentenced to life imprisonment for murder [that] one did not commit. A widow is suspected of being haunted by the ghost of her late husband. As a result, she is shunned by her friends and other members of society. The ghost is said to be deadly and contagious so much that if any person marries or has sex with her before she is cleansed, that person would die or run mad. The ghost is not only dangerous and harmful to others, but to the widow as well. Her married friends do not want to associate with her for fear of the misfortune of losing their husbands too.”[4]

The second is physical, sexual, and mental abuse. The ritual of cleansing for the widow in some African cultures involves having sexual intercourse with the brother or close male relative of the deceased husband, or even any stranger that the widow meets on the road. Wafula observes, “For example, in Nigeria specifically, …a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, ‘the first stranger she meets on the road,’ or some other designated male. This ‘ritual cleansing by sex’ is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm.”[5]

The third is abandonment and destitution. In Africa, after the demise of a husband, the relatives of the husband abandon many widows. Such widows and their children end up destitute because the family of the husband grab every property left by the deceased. Wafula shares an experience: “At a recent burial ceremony of a friend in Western Kenya, I came face to face with the ordeal that widows go through soon after their husbands pass-on. …Achieng had lived very well with her late husband who was also my friend and renowned journalist. Upon his demise in a grisly road accident, the entire clan rose up in arms against Achieng, and we could not help but watch as her rural home was rummaged through and literally all belongings carried away by the husband’s relatives.”[6]

The fourth is oppression and humiliation. The treatment that women receive at the death of their husbands is characterised by cruelty and embarrassment. Prof. Lucky Ogbigbi Eboh and Dr. Thomas E Boye, in their article, “Widowhood in African Society and Its Effects on Woman’s Health”, bring out some of these practices: “Some of the practices widows are meant to pass through on the loss of the husband are shaving of hair on the head, drinking of remains of bath water used to wash the husbands’ corpses, mourn her husband death for about three to twelve months depending on the ethnic group, …women do not have right to inherit land or property, widows are not allowed to bathe, clean her surroundings during mourning period….”[7]

The fifth is disinheritance. Rose Nwaebuni, in her article, “Nigeria: A difficult Place to be a Widow,” notes, “It is a well settled rule of native law and custom of the Yoruba people that a wife could not inherit her husband’s property since she herself is…to be inherited by a relative of her husband… When Obodoeche returned to Lagos, after the mourning period was over, she discovered that her husband’s relatives had sold off the family house, cars and other properties jointly acquired by her husband and herself. Assets including a building and other properties were confiscated. Local custom laws were used to dispossess both the widow and her daughters without their knowledge.”[8]

The sixth is ill health and malnutrition. Widow-hood subjects women to extreme poverty. In this condition, it becomes a challenge for a widow and her children to access good food and proper health care. “Often illiterate, ill-equipped for gainful employment, without access to land for food security or adequate shelter, widows and their children suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate care or other forms of support.”[9]


The magnitude of the problem of orphan-hood

There are several factors that show the magnitude of the problem of orphan-hood in Africa. The first is the number of orphans in Africa. It is estimated that there are 150 million plus orphans in the world, and out of this number, 56 million are from Sub-Saharan Africa.[10] As can be observed from the statistics, Africa holds the highest number of orphans in the world.

In Zambia, for example, statistics show that “One in five children less than 18 years is not living with either biological parent. Fifteen percent of children have one or both parents dead, while nineteen percent are considered orphans and/or vulnerable.”[11]

The second factor relates to those who would assume the responsibility of looking after orphans. It is a common trend in Africa that when parents die, often it is the grandparents that are left with the responsibility of looking after the orphaned children. The United Nation International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) press centre reports, “Evidence clearly shows that the most of orphans are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or other family member.”[12]

The third factor is the significant number of orphans who are separated from their own siblings. In Zambia, for example, the majority of orphans live apart from their own sisters and brothers. The Central Statistics Office of Zambia reports that “…over half of orphans (53%) do not live with all their siblings.”[13] This is heart-breaking for the orphans.

The fourth factor pertains to the things that have contributed to the problem of orphan-hood. These include poverty, war and conflict, HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality, and unwanted pregnancy. Concerning poverty, Matt, Chris and Lewis, in their article, “Global Orphans Crisis—facts and statistics,” writes, “Above all else, poverty overwhelmingly increases the likelihood of children becoming orphaned because parents are both more likely to get sick and less likely to be able to treat illnesses.[14]

Concerning HIV/AIDS, Matt, Chris and Lewis, once again observe, “Globally, HIV/AIDs is responsible for almost 20 million child orphans, of which 15 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDs not only leads to single-parent orphans, but contributes disproportionally to double-parent orphans due to how the disease is transferred.”[15]

Concerning war and conflict, Matt, Chris and Lewis further note, “It is not just parents dying as a result of combat between armed forces that leaves children orphaned. Often, as in the case of some of the most heinous and abhorrent conflicts in our world, the murdering of parents in front of children has been documented as a deliberate tactic employed by militias aimed at causing the disintegration of a society’s fabric.”[16] 

Monica Mark, in her article, entitled “Joseph Kony Child Soldier Returns to Terrorised Boyhood Village,” reports that a rebel group known as the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’, led by Joseph Kony, before recruiting children as soldiers would force them to first kill their own parents.[17]

Maternal mortality in Africa is quite high leaving a significant number of children orphaned each year. In Zambia, according to the 2007 survey of the Central Statistics Office, the maternal mortality rate is at 591 per 100,000 live births.[18]

Unwanted pregnancies also have a large share in contributing to the orphan problem. In Africa, pregnancy outside marriage often leads to shame culturally. This results into hiding pregnancies being and abandoning babies.

 The fate of orphans in Africa

What then is the fate of orphans in Africa? What usually happens to orphans in Africa? First, they would end up on the streets. This is the most obvious and common result. The orphans wonder about trying to look for refuge.

Second, they would be trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation. UNICEF Press reports that an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. Orphans who are without the protection of their parents are usually easy targets for traffickers.[19]

Third, some orphans are recruited in armed forces as child soldiers. The International Labour Organisation in its article, “Child Labour and Armed Conflict,” reports that many children are recruited and forced to fight as child soldiers after seeing their own families killed by the same forces that then recruit them.”[20] This is shocking but true.


The fate of widows and orphans in Africa provides an opportunity of ministry for the church in Africa. Their situation should be an impetus for the church to have a ministry that is relevant to the needs and welfare of widows and orphans in Africa. The apostle James in James 1:27 admonishes the church as follows: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” The church must take advantage of this opportunity.


Child Labour and Conflict. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from International Labour Organisation: http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Armedconflict/lang–en/index.htm

Child Protection From Violence and Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58005.html

Global Orphan Crisis-Facts and Statistics. (2014, September 4). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from MattDarvas: http://mattdarvas.com/2014/09/04/global-orphan-crisis/

Hartmann, H. (2011, June 23). Widowhood: Causes and Effects. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Institute for Women’s Policy Research: www.iwpr.org

Lucky Ogbigbi Eboh and Thomas E Boye. (n.d.). widowhood in African Society and it’s effects on woman’s health. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from African Health Sciences: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1831944/

Mark, M. (2013, July 23). Joseph Kony Child Soldier Returns to Terrorised Boyhood Village. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/23/joseph-kony-child-soldier-return-uganda-lra

Orphans. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/media/media_45279.html?p=printme

Owen, M. (n.d.). Widowhood in the Third Word. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Death Reference: http://www.deathreference.com/Vi-Z/Widows-in-Third-World-Nations.html

The Plight of a Widow in Zambia. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from The Believers: www.thebelievers.org/widows.html

Waebuni, R. (2013, November 27). The Africa Report. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Nigeria: A Difficult Place to be a Widow: http://www.theafricareport.com/West-Africa/nigeria-a-difficult-place-to-be-a-widow.html

Wafula, W. (2012, October 16). The Ordeal of Widowhood in Africa. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Wanjalawafula: wanjalawafula.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-ordeal-of-widowhood-in-africa

Zamstatistics. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2016 from Central Statistics Office, Zambia: http://www.zamstats.gov.zm/surveys/zdhs.php

[1] Wajala Wafula, “The Ordeal of Widowhood in Africa,” https://wanjalawafula.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-ordeal-of-widowhood-in-africa (accessed May 30, 2016).

[2] Heidi Hartmann, “Widowhood: causes and effects,” www.iwpr.org (accessed May 30, 2016).

[3] Margaret Owen, “Widows in Third World Nations,” http://www.deathreference.com/Vi-Z/Widows-in-Third-World-Nations.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

[4] “The Plight of a Widow in Zambia,” http://www.thebelievers.org/widows.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

[5]Wajara Wafula.

[6]Wajala Wafula.

[7] Lucky Ogbigbi Eboh and Dr. Thomas E Boye, “Widowhood in African Society and It’s Effects on Woman’s Health,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1831944/ (accessed May 30, 2016).

[8] Rose Nwaebuni, “Nigeria: A Difficult Place to be a Widow,” http://www.theafricareport.com/West-Africa/nigeria-a-difficult-place-to-be-a-widow.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

[9] “Widows in Third World Nations,” http://www.deathreference.com/Vi-Z/Widows-in-Third-World-Nations.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

[10] Matt, Chris and Lewis, “Global Orphan Crisis-Facts and Statistics,” http://mattdarvas.com/2014/09/04/global-orphan-crisis/ (accessed May 30, 2016).

[11] Central Statistics Office, Zambia, http://www.zamstats.gov.zm/surveys/zdhs.php (accessed May 30, 2016).

[12] UNICEF Press Centre.

[13] Central Statistics Office, Zambia.

[14] Matt, Chris and Lewis.

[15] Matt, Chris and Lewis.

[16] Matt, Chris and Lewis.

[17] Monica Mark, “Joseph Kony Child Soldier Returns to Terrorised Boyhood Village,” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/23/joseph-kony-child-soldier-return-uganda-lra (accessed May 30, 2016).

[18] Central Statistics Office, Zambia.

[19] “Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse,” http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58005.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

[20]The International Labour Organisation, “Child Labour and Armed Conflict,” http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Armedconflict/lang–en/index.htm(accessed May 30, 2016).