Archive | October, 2012

The ordeal of widowhood in Africa

16 Oct


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 and that incident is the inspiration behind this piece. 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 husbands relatives. It was a scene to behold yet a lesson for many of us on the African continent.

Bereavement is a social fact in any culture but reactions and practices relating to this vary from culture to culture. Although widows constitute a large proportion of the adult female population in African communities, systematic investigation is missing. The result is that much of the scanty pieces of information we have on widowhood practices are mere raw and unprocessed information hence the need to galvanize more public discourse and action on the subject

 Solving the problems of widows in Africa means addressing the inequitable power regimes characterized by vulnerability, stigma, discrimination and suffering. We propose that the most crucial interventions should include addressing the role of communities and culture, the socialization processes, practice of polygamy; apathy on the part of the police, the administration, and the judiciary; the absence of any law specifically addressing the problems of widows; and the general avoidance of drafting wills, coupled with the absence of effective means for enforcing wills. It calls in place the addressing of fundamental contradictions inherent in the African legal system where statutory laws coexist with Islamic and traditional customary laws and practices

The problems of widows in Africa cannot be divorced from the larger problems facing many Third World nations and particularly, the problems of women, children, and other marginalized groups within these nations. The plight of widows in Africa clearly implicates the institutional, public, and private actors in the international scene. Economically, whole societies suffer as a result of continuing discrimination against widows. Furthermore, with the current source of HIV and AIDS in Africa, debates about the rights and entitlements of widows take on new meaning. Customary practices of widowhood and widowhood rites also impose special hardships and vulnerabilities on women.

In Africa, one constant feature is widow’s disproportionate exclusion from property ownership. This is actualized by the fact that women generally remain a minority (10%) of owners of land and housing and often face discriminatory customs enshrined in patriarchy and negative masculinity, religious laws, and institutional practices that severely restrict their ability to gain and control such property (NACC: Gender technical committee 2010). These trends are true for women in urban and rural areas alike and worst for those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS (Action-Aid Kenya 2009). Additionally, there is a general lack of data on property ownership disaggregated by sex at national level as acknowledged by the Kenya bureau of statistics thus making it difficult to know the true extent of women’s ownership or control of such assets and the realization of their rights to property and inheritance.

 The thinking that we propose is an empowerment scheme targeting the community specifically, cultural practices and traditions generally and widows directly. The thing is the only means through which widows can reduce their helplessness and alienation. In the process, women gain greater control over all aspects of their lives and social environment. The thinking involves attacking all forms of subordination directed at widows. The inhibitions targeted include, psychic, physical, cultural, sexual, legal, political, and economical. We insist that the premise of the project is engaging communities because we hold the notion that resolutions to problems faced by widows require a multidimensional approach that must improve psycho-social, educational, cultural, spiritual and emotional development.

We insist that communities generally and men and boys specifically must be assisted to recognize and understand the widows disadvantaged situation in order to be aided to take steps to help them overcome it. Through social widowhood education, men and women can be enabled collectively and individually to take full control over their lives and situations so as to overcome problems of irrational beliefs, superstition, ignorance, illiteracy and psychological suppression. In order for widows in Africa to be integrated into the support systems of their communities, they need a friendly culture which specifies dignified ways in which the community expects them to behave and how they should be treated by their kin and those of their deceased husbands


Day for the Girl Child

14 Oct


By Wanjala Wafula

I sent you greetings from the valiant warriors of the Mara. It’s them whose history is declaimed with much nostalgia and whose prominence spans beyond the Oceans. Regards from the Maasai (Morans) soldiers who even the kings of the jungle shiver upon glimpsing. For these friends of mine, life is woven in mysticism, extreme masculinity and their adherence to archaic traditions and practices is akin to no other in the world. Even as we move from village to village trying to understand the place and position of girls in this community, I am afraid that there is not much to write home about.

After a few days crisscrossing the vast Kajiado County, I can contentedly divulge that over 61% of the girls are forced to marry and are committed to being in slavery like marriages for the rest of their lives. Girls who are victims of servile marriages experience domestic servitude, sexual slavery and suffer from violations to their right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence

The cost of child marriage is too high to be overlooked. When a girl is forced to marry at a young age, it diminishes her chance at an education, endangers her health and has long lasting and dire consequences not only for her, but for her family and community as well. It’s a pity that the family and community that are naturally supposed to be safety nets for girls turn around and become the aggressors out to sort the minute family tribulations while committing the girl to anguish.

Kenya has enacted sufficient laws that limit marriage to a minimum age of 18 years yet statistics show that traditional marriages of girls of younger ages are widespread all across the country. Experts have been quick to affirm that poverty, religion, harmful traditional practices and conflict make the rate of child marriage in Kenya similar to that of many other African countries. Many child marriages are related to poverty, with parents needing the bride price of a daughter to feed, clothe, educate, and house the rest of the family.

Meanwhile, a male child in Kenya is more likely to gain a full education, gain employment and pursue a working life, thus tending to marry later. In Kenya, the girl – boy ratio currently stands at 26:2. The various UN-commissioned reports indicate that in Kenya, there is a high incidence of marriage among girls younger than 15. A consultative forum on child marriage in Kenya hosted by the Coexist Initiative in 2011 concluded that the Kenyan government has tended to overlook the particular problems resulting from child marriage.

What is worrying is that 35,000 girls in Kenya will be married during the next one year. Experts worry that although the definition of child marriage includes boys, most children married in Kenya under the age of 18 years are girls. Further, while the practice has decreased globally over the last 30 years, it remains common in Kenya especially among the poorest of the poor. In Kenya, 40% of girls were married before turning 18 in the last two years. Child marriage is a health issue as well as a human rights violation. Because it takes place almost exclusively within the context of poverty and gender inequality, it also has social, cultural and economic dimensions. Married adolescents have been neglected from the global adolescent reproductive health agenda because of the incorrect assumption that their married status ensures them a safe passage to adulthood

Community engagement is a necessary part of working to prevent child marriage. Gender norms especially gendered beliefs and practices at the family and community level are among the root causes of child marriage and child abuse in general. Changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviors at the community level is a promising way to decrease the acceptance of child marriage. Community-level norms and practices also influence the institutional response to child marriage when it occurs. Because community-level institutions tend to be the most widely accessible, it is at this level that citizens may have the most influence over institutional responses to child marriage to either promote and support appropriate responses to child marriage or neglect and undermine efforts to address it.


As a way forward, I propose a community engagement strategy benchmarked on bringing together the talents, resources and skills of people in the community in order to increase their collective power and work for social change which in this case is eliminating child marriage. I propose that we enhance learning from the ground up, using community-based engagement strategies to reach out to communities with child marriage prevention messages and to involve local leaders, residents, service providers, and government institutions in eliminating child marriage.

This strategy has several key advantages including the fact that it helps community members to better understand the dangers of child marriage. Awareness is the first step towards preventing and reducing child marriage.  The strategy is paramount as it serves as a vehicle for establishing new norms about child marriage and how it can be prevented. Most importantly, the strategy brings the dialogue about child marriage into public consciousness by addressing the denial, stigma, discrimination and isolation that often surround it. The community is a critical place to hold the conversation about child marriage prevention and yet little is known about how to engage local community structures around these issues.

The mobilization of pro-social behavior on the part of potential bystanders on matters relating to child marriage prevention is the premise of my proposition. This approach has utility for increasing community receptivity to child marriage messaging by decreasing resistance to them, and for increasing the likelihood of community members taking an active role in prevention and intervention.

Community members know the cultural values attributed to child marriage, traditions that unknowingly respect and practices that support child marriage. They even know what can be used appropriately to intervene and stop child marriage. In some of the identified sites, we have established that communities including men, women, and youth understand and reject child marriage and are willing to play a key role in eliminating the vice. They see child marriage as a primary barrier to community development and revitalization. Most community residents and leaders have the willingness and capacity to develop the skills needed to conduct child marriage prevention and intervention activities

I avow, No girl should be forced to marry. No girl should be committed to servile marriage, domestic servitude and sexual slavery. No girl should suffer from violations to their right to health, education, non-discrimination and freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence. Not a single one!!!

The writer is a Founder and CEO of The Coexist Initiative, a not for profit synergy of men and boys organizations committed to eliminating all forms of sexual/gender based violence and enhancing HIV prevention in Kenya. Visit: