Posted on March 8, 2017
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… Widowhood in Rural Africa
Though we have come so far in achieving gender parity, gender inequality remains pervasive, with damaging cultural traditions and customs at the heart of the issue. Unjust practices against women are embedded in history and the perpetration of damaging cultural practices reinforces male-dominated power structures across the world.
Some of the traditions that women face are violent, life-threatening, and human rights abusing, and no other sector of society knows this quite like widows in rural Africa. In many rural communities widows are subject both directly and indirectly to harmful practices – from head shaving and compulsory isolation at the death of a husband to rape and forced poverty.
Upon losing their husbands, many women are left impoverished. In some African cultures, widows aren’t allowed to inherit property and are instead seen as chattel to their husband’s estate. His property can be forcefully acquired by his family, leaving the widow and children to fend for themselves.
Culture can also throw up some interesting dichotomies when it comes to women’s rights. Though the Ashanti tribe, the largest tribe in Ghana, is a matriarchal society, in this culture, the properties of a deceased husband are inherited by the man’s sisters’ and passed on to their sons or nephews. In other parts of Africa the male relatives of the deceased inherit his property. The widow can only benefit from her late husband’s estate if she has a grown male child or marries one of her husband’s brothers. In some communities in Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Cameroon the widow must return, with her own children, to her childhood family after a designated period of mourning, inheriting nothing of her husband’s property. In many of these countries the law provides for the inheritance rights of widows and their children, but this is difficult to enforce in rural communities with local customs often overpowering national laws. Despite rising instances of women seeking court redress on inheritance issues, only a handful of people can afford to initiate and maintain court actions.
As well as suffering economic hardships, many widows face direct maltreatment which takes the form of traditional grieving routines. The practice of ‘widow cleansing’ dates back centuries and is still practiced in some rural societies in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo and Nigeria. This practice involves sexual intercourse with a man from the widow’s village or from her husband’s family, usually a brother or close male relative, ostensibly to allow her husband’s spirit to roam free in afterlife. It is rooted in the belief that a woman is haunted by spirits after her husband dies.Such cultural practices prove deadly, given the wide prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa and are not unlikely to have contributed to the high rate of HIV infection in these African countries. Despite the risks, the traditions of widow cleansing still continue because most widows have no alternative – if they refuse, they risk rejection by their communities.
In the South-Eastern part of Nigeria, widows go through a period of confinement, which can range from 8 days to 4 months, beginning when the husband’s death is discovered. In this period, the widow is forbidden from leaving her room and her hair is completely shaved. She is expected to sit on the floor and wail at the top of her lungs each morning and is not allowed to take a bath or change her clothes under her husband’s body is buried. In other areas, widows are expected to drink the water used to wash their husband’s corpse in preparation for his burial. Widowers do not suffer the same fate and most women grow up believing that there’s nothing they can or should do to escape these customs.
Widows across Africa, particularly in rural society have their rights devalued. On International Women’s Day, ACT stands strong with women and particularly widows in Africa as they strive to break through from the struggles of life. ACT is empowering widows in Africa to generate income in a sustainable way so that they can support their families and eliminate poverty. On this day, ACT celebrates women and stands with them, but not just today, not just today, but in the face of whatever the future holds.
Read more about ACT’s work with widows in Africa here.