African widows, irrespective of ethnic groups, are among the most ulnerable and destitute women in the region. Common to both francophone and anglophone countries in the region is the concept that death does not end a marriage. While the widow may have no rights to ownership
of her husband’s property, she is usually expected to fulfil obligations towards her deceased husband through her participation in traditional practices. In return she would be allowed to remain in her home and to have rights to cultivate land.
In the past, this pattern of reciprocal duties and obligations in an extended family protected the widow and her children. Today, the custom is more likely to be used to oppress and exploit them. The low status, poverty and violence experienced by widows stem from discrimination in
inheritance custom, the patriarchal nature of society, and the domination of oppressive traditional practices and customary codes, which take precedence over constitutional guarantees
of equality, modern laws and international women’s human rights
A widow’s husband’s brothers can be covetous and unscrupulous. “Chasing off” and “property grabbing” are common features of widowhood everywhere in this region, and even newly reformed laws have been ineffective in protecting the victims. Widow abuse is visible across ethnic groups, income, class and education. Legislative reform in compliance with international
treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, has largely failed to take precedence over local interpretations of customary law.
Widowhood may deprive women of their home, agricultural land, assets and even their children. The poverty of widowhood causes children, especially girls, to be withdrawn from school. In some ethnic groups, degrading rituals such as ritual cleansing by sex, widow inheritance, the practice of levirate and accusations of witchcraft support institutionalized widow abuse of the
gravest nature. This type of gender related violence, unlike female genital mutilation and so-called “honour killings”, has yet to reach the agenda of international women’s human rights activities.
In many countries, widows’ coping strategies involve exploitative informal sector work, putting children into child labour, begging and, ultimately, sex work. Some women have been able to use determination and courage in the face of tragedy and, either individually or in cooperation with other widows, have become self-supporting and entrepreneurial, running small businesses, farming, and supporting their children and mother dependants.
The strength of widows’ groups in Uganda (such as The Aids Support Organisation (TASO) and
Philly Lutaaya) is a model of what can be achieved when widows organize themselves.
Widows’ groups in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Swaziland are heightening awareness of the issues and providing training in income-generation, health care and shelter for destitute widows and their families. More of these groups need to be encouraged to develop so that widows are not
just seen in terms of recipients of welfare relief but as women whose contribution to the economy and potential role in society should be properly acknowledged.
In Africa, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS have brought widowhood prematurely to millions of women. A wave of genocide created 500,000 widows in Rwanda. Sixty per cent of adult women were widowed by the wars in Angola and Mozambique. After the genocide, many widows
became victims of their husbands’ male relatives who, rather than protect and support them, denied them any access to their husbands’ land or property. The NGO called the Association of Widows of the Genocide of April 1994 (AVEGA) reports that six years after the mass raping of war widows by HIV- infected assailants, at least two of its members die from AIDS each week.
Similar NGO reports on war widowhood come from Angola, the Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria,
Somalia and northern Uganda. The linkages between widowhood, inheritance law, land ownership, armed conflict, HIV/AIDS and poverty are vividly illustrated in this region.
Inheritance has been the subject of law reform in many countries of anglophone Africa. Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe are among those Governments that have legislated for equality in inheritance rights in compliance with their obligations under the Beijing Platform for Action and human rights treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, it is
clear that at the local level discriminatory customary rules on inheritance still apply, whatever constitutional guarantees or modern laws exist.
In rare cases where courageous women have defied threats of violence and taken their cases to court, some independent and creative judges have decreed that international law as laid down under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women takes precedence over custom and religion.
In the United Republic of Tanzania, widows of all ages suffer extreme violence due to lack of inheritance rights under customary law. Of great concern, especially in the context of communicable diseases, are the harmful, degrading and life-threatening traditional
practices as part of burial rites. For example, in a number of countries, widows are forced to drink the water that their husbands’ corpses have been washed in. Ghana is one of the few countries that has enacted specific legislation in this area. There is little awareness of this ambiguously drafted 1989 amendment to the Penal Code; and it has never been enforced.
Research into the nature and effect of widows’ mourning rites has been scant, although the practice violates many basic principles contained in all key international human rights conventions. One of Nigeria’s widow NGOs, Widows Development Organization, has undertaken a survey of traditional mourning practices among its members. However, taboos on discussing such intimate topics have allowed for little research on this aspect of widow abuse in Africa. This contrasts with the abundance of research, done in East and Southern Africa, into widows’ rights
to inheritance and land use.
Widowhood practices in Nigeria
In Nigeria, family law permits certain widowhood practices which discriminate gainst women, particularly women married according to customary rather than statutory law. Some of the negative practices derive from the belief that "the beauty of a woman is her husband". At his death, she is seen as unclean and impure, and the customs she must observe in the weeks following her husband’s death can undermine health. If she has no male adult children, she may be ejected from her husband’s house as both it and his land will have been inherited by his
oldest brother. In most cases, the husband’s kin do not provide the widow with any economic support, particularly if she will not accept the status of being an additional wife to one of her husband’s brothers.
In a study in Imo State, Nigeria, interviews and discussions were held with traditional rulers, leaders of women’s organizations and widows. Five factors that have an impact on the health and economic status of widows were identified: a long period of incarceration during mourning;
an obligatory poor standard of hygiene; deprivation of the husband’s property and maltreatment by his relatives; the enforcement of persistent wailing; and the practice of demanding that a widow sit in the same room with her husband’s body until burial.