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


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