A recent experience of a friend of my family started me thinking about the plight of widows. Onyeka Onwenu played the part of an igbo widow who had to shave her head and deal with a lot of inhuman treatment the moment her husband died. Nigerian movies constantly depict the cruelty facing widows. So i decided to do some more research about this. This post is quite long so i intend to make it a 2-3 part series. The family friend in question who i shall call Aunty J, is aware that i am doing this post so she is looking forward to reading it so please let your thoughts and comments be known. Aunty J has said many times over that if she had known, she would not have ignored financial security over love. Yes love is great but at the end of the day when her husband died, the love did not keep the inlaws away. So here goes:
"We are considered bad omens. We are excluded from all auspicious events."
"I am accused of being a witch who killed her husband." (Terezinha, Mozambique)
"We are treated like animals just because we are widows." (Angela, Nigeria)
"I and my children were kicked out of the house and beaten by the brothers-in-law."
"My husband died of AIDS and slept with many women; I am now dying, but his family blames me for his death." (Isabel, Kenya)
India has the largest recorded number of widows in the world—33 million (10 per cent of the female population, compared to only 3 per cent of men), and the number is growing because of HIV/AIDS and civil conflicts. “Fifty-four per cent of women aged 60 and over are widows, as are 12 per cent of women aged 35-39. Remarriage is the exception rather than the rule; only about 10 per cent of widows marry again.” India is perhaps the only country where widowhood,
in addition to being a personal status, exists as a social institution.
Widows’ deprivation and stigmatization are exacerbated by ritual and religious symbolism. Indian society, like all patriarchal societies, confers social status on a woman through a man; hence, in the absence of a man, she herself becomes a nonentity and suffers a social death. Sati
(widow burning) is the ultimate manifestation of this belief. Widow remarriage may be forbidden in the higher castes, and remarriage, where permitted, may be restricted to a family
member. Further, a widow, upon remarriage, may be required to relinquish custody of her children as well as any property rights she may have. If she keeps her children with her,
she may fear they will be ill-treated in a second marriage. Indian widows are often regarded as “evil eyes”, the purveyors of ill fortune and unwanted burdens on poor families. Words in
the vernacular are crudely pejorative: “witch”, “dakan” and “whore” (similar verbal abuse is common in Bangladesh as well as in some countries in Africa).
Thousands of widows are disowned by their relatives and thrown out of their homes in the context of land and inheritance disputes. Their options, given a lack of education and training, are mostly limited to becoming exploited, unregulated, domestic labourers (often as house
slaves within the husband’s family) or turning to begging or prostitution.
The sexual and economic exploitation of widows, abandoned by their families to the temple sites has been sensationally documented in the media. Thousands of India’s widows live in abject poverty and degradation in these centres. Younger widows are forced into prostitution, and older ones are left to beg and chant for alms from pilgrims and tourists. Older
widows may have lived the greater part of their lives in these temples, having been brought there as child widows many years before. The ordeals of the temple widows and the occasional satire publicized in the international press. But the day-to-day suffering of Indian widows,
who are emotionally, physically and sexually abused by relatives, who or migrate to cities to live on the streets and beg, remains largely hidden.
Legislation criminalizing child marriage, sati and violence against women has not succeeded in
eliminating such traditions, which persist in villages of some Indian states. Lack of legal literacy, threats of violence and the insensitivity of the legal profession to women’s issues bar widows from seeking justice. As in other regions of the world, bitter disputes occur between widows
and brothers-in-law and sons and daughters-in-law over inheritance, residence and support, often resulting in physical and mental violence, including sexual abuse.
Restrictions on residence, dress, diet and social intercourse force a widow to a life in the shadows affecting both her physical and mental health. Cruel mourning rites may confine the widow within a designated residence for many months or years.
However, two factors distinguish India’s treatment of its widows from that of other developing countries. First, a number of states have set up widows’ pension schemes. Secondly, India is home to a vibrant and dedicated women’s movement, which is fighting intensely for the protection and empowerment of all women, and offers special programmes for widows.
In Bangladesh, the Muslim widow is, in theory, better off than the Indian Hindu widow. The Koran encourages remarriage and a widow cannot be disinherited. Under sharia, a woman
is entitled to one eighth of her husband’s estate, and half her male siblings’ share of the parent’s estate. In practice, however, many Bangladeshi widows, especially those who are illiterate and live in rural areas, are subject to oppressive patriarchal traditions.
Widows are the poorest and most vulnerable group since they are often deprived of their rightful inheritance. According to a recent report, many rural widows receive nothing from their in-laws and are often victims of violence, evicted from their homes and robbed of their household possessions. In return for shelter, many Bangladeshi widows are forced to work long hours as unpaid domestic servants in a relative’s house. Others may be brutally forced out into homelessness and thus are statistically uncounted.
Because arranged child marriages still occur in rural areas in Bangladesh, and age differences
between spouses can be great, child widowhood is not uncommon. Polygamy enables second wives to be brought into a marriage when the first is considered too old for sex or
childbearing. Daughters of poor widows represent an economic liability and are most likely to be given away in such arrangements. They commonly encounter problems with the new family and the adult sons. Before long, they may find themselves child widows in a hostile setting, encountering abuse or eviction. Illiterate, young and vulnerable, they may be passed on to a series of older, frail or disabled men, thus enduring serial widowhood.
Bangladesh, like Nepal, is allegedly a major centre for trafficking young girls to the brothels of India.
Widows’ daughters who are without male protectors and not enrolled in school are especially at risk to this trade. The numbers of young Bangladeshi girls disappearing in this way is purportedly reaching astronomical proportions. Poor, homeless Bangladeshi widows
make up a sizeable percentage of women marketed as domestic servants, forced to leave their children behind in the hope that the meagre income which they send home will
be used to feed, clothe and educate them.
In Pakistan, destitute widows are reported to be supported by a small pension or zakat. But, as in India, the allocation system is often corrupt, and the most needy widows are frequently neglected. Furthermore, the Honour Codes oppress all women, with a blanket of silence hiding
the cruelty; and sometimes imprisonment, or even death, is inflicted on young widows who are
suspected of bringing dishonour to the family.
In Sri Lanka, war widows from both sides of the conflict experience poverty and marginalization. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 widows live in
Kabul, most of whom lost their husbands in the war that killed an estimated 50,000 civilians. Under the Taliban, widows were doubly victimized. Denied paid employment, these widows further lost access to international food aid, since it was decreed by the Taliban
that such aid had to be collected by a male relative, which these widows do not have. The Taliban ban on women working outside the home has drastically increased the numbers
of widows and children begging in the streets. Widowed mothers’ children suffer malnutrition, ill health and depression, which in many cases leads to suicide.