In the shadows of tradition: Widows recount silent horrors

Widows Millicent Aoko, Esther Atin Ondego (ex-clan elder), Mary Auma Kere, Scholastica Masidis Madowo ( South East Alego MCA) and Rosemary Owino (feeding a pig) from Siaya County.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The overwhelming distress that follows the death of their husbands is like a chorus from a dirge; theirs is a burden too heavy to bear in an unending quest for justice.
  • Experts say the law on its own is not enough to protect widows from continued abuse, and call for heightened campaigns against harmful traditions, and brave men paving the way by allocating property to their daughters.

I meet Rosemary Owino at her home in North Alego, Siaya County, at 5.15pm. She is burning waste next to a mango tree overshadowing a pigsty.

In between the eucalyptus trees surrounding her fenceless compound are orange light peers ushering in a sunset. Smoke and two snorting pigs foraging in the field welcome us to her home.

She is the 20th widow I am interviewing. I'm mentally exhausted and famished. My day started at 6am and I've spent more than nine hours non-stop speaking with 19 widows in Rarieda sub-county. Now, I'm in Alego-Usonga—one hour apart.

Rosemary’s story churns my stomach to fullness. It takes me to another world. I am surprised that in this 21st century, widows still go through hellish experiences even with the existence of Maputo Protocol, which expressly protects their rights and demands that they live in a positive cultural context, free from any form of discrimination.

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), went into effect in 2005, two years after the African Union (AU) adopted it in Maputo, Mozambique. It is an instrument established by the AU to protect the rights of women.

Forty-three African countries out of 55 have since ratified the protocol, including Kenya, which did so in October 2010. It outlines the rights of widows and the state’s role in protecting them.

Article 20 of the Maputo Protocol mandates African states to take appropriate legal measures to ensure widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment.

For decades, as written in the 2002 Human Rights Quarterly journal, from the pre-colonial to post-colonial period, widows across Africa have been under the mercy of conservative traditions where women are seen through the shadows of men. When a man dies, his widow loses all rights and privileges.

In total, United Nation estimates the world has a population of 258 million widows. Further, in Africa, the World Bank approximates that one in 10 women aged 14 and above is widowed. Loomba Foundation  places Kenya at 33 position out of 39 countries with more than one million widows in its 2015 World Widows Report. The reports records that Kenya had 1,424,689 widows out of a women  population of 12 million.

The report is eight years old and the women population has since doubled to 24 million; hence figures may have risen.  As it is, there are no official figures from the Kenyan government.

But the problems widows in Africa continue to face mirror those of their fellows across the world. There are women who became widows because their husbands were killed or just disappeared during internal armed conflicts like in Guatemala, Central America or territorial disputes in Kashmir, India. Others are natural deaths, while some are a result of accidents.

Nevertheless, the distress that follows the death of their husbands is like a chorus from a dirge from India, where brothers-in-law either prosecute, beat, torture or even murder the widow to inherit their brother’s property, to Zimbabwe, where in-laws evict them.

For those in either Guatemala or India, they have to push the government to show them where they buried their husbands or at least tell them where they disappeared to. At home, they will be having a fight with their in-laws to keep their husband’s property, including land.

In Kenya, the challenges are not any different based on studies done by Human Rights Watch. For many widows in the lake region, before they are recognised as family members to freely access land or property, brothers-in-law and village elders force them to be inherited, a rite preceded by sexual cleansing.

Judy Gitau – a lawyer and human rights expert, who heads Equality Now regional office for Africa – terms sexual cleansing an act of rape because the woman does not consent to sex. For those from the pastoralist communities, the eviction and taking away of livestock is done simultaneously.

This year marks 12 years since the world started commemorating International Widows Day, after the UN General Assembly set aside June 23, for the occasion. The day draws global attention to widows’ plight, creates awareness of ways to eliminate them and commits to respecting, restoring and safeguarding their rights.

Held back

For the 31 widows I have interviewed over three months in Siaya, Nyamira, Kajiado and Nakuru counties, however, the international and regional human rights instruments and the 2010 Constitution, which prescribe non-discrimination of women or law of succession granting widows a right to inheritance, are just but regulations not applicable in their world.

Since Rosemary’s husband died in 2000, she has been inherited three times. The fourth time she played a trick on a man to fulfil a cultural doctrine. Her mother and younger sisters, whose suitors were ready to pay reverse dowry, were stressing her to bring home her husband so that she would release them to marry.

Rosemary comes from the Luo ethnic group, which inhabits Siaya, Kisumu, Migori and Homa Bay counties. Just like the cultural demands among the Kisii in the neighbouring counties of Kisii and Nyamira, Rosemary, being the eldest sister, had to bring her husband home, a confirmation of her marriage to the clan. Only then would she open doors for her sisters to marry.

The process of securing the man to act as her husband was humiliating. She rode a bicycle from one chang’aa (illicit liquor) drinking den to another, seducing men. She bought a lot of liquor, but they rejected her, she says. They said they didn't want to associate themselves with a widow whose inheritor had died. Eventually, she got one who didn’t know her story.

“I had to trick the man,” she says, exhaling deeply.

“I was under immense pressure from my mother and sisters. My sisters wanted to get married but their suitors would not pay [reverse] dowry before I fulfilled the rituals as the eldest daughter.

“I told him I just needed someone to escort me to my paternal home. I had to take a goat, so I hired a boda boda to go ahead of us with the goat. The boda boda operator left it at the gate. When we arrived, I told him we can’t visit my mother empty-handed. My father had died years earlier. So we went with the goat.”

They were welcomed as a couple. With that, she freed her sisters.

“I was tired of inheritance. I had had enough of the rituals and the abuse from the inheritors’ wives,” she says indignantly.

Two months after her husband’s death, her two brothers-in-law from the first and second family organised for her inheritance. Her father-in-law had two wives. She says the sexual cleansing in the Luo tradition is meant to purify a widow.

It precedes one's inheritance by the man who partakes in the ritual or another one as the in-laws would demand. The inheritance happens when the man, often from the immediate family or clan, takes the widow as his wife, but maintains his other family or families.

In other circumstances, the inheriting man can be outside the loop should the relatives refuse to inherit her and the widow is forced to find a man as was the case for Rosemary.

In planning for her first inheritance, the two brothers-in-law and the village elders met at her homestead, which sat on a piece of land that the brother-in-law, from the first family, had apportioned her after her mother-in-law ejected her from her land.

She describes the brother-in-law from the first family as kind and understanding. Her husband came from the second family. By the time he died, they had three children, but the last-born later passed away. The man they chose to cleanse her, through unprotected sex, was frightening, she says.

“They brought a scary man. He was tall and had a huge wound on one of his legs. When I saw him, I ran into a cassava plantation and hid. He was running after me but it was dark, he didn’t see me. He gave up and went away. I stayed in the plantation until morning. The in-laws and the elders were disappointed in me,” she says.

Choosing for a widow a man to remarry or forcing her to have sex with a partner not of her choice goes against the provisions of the Maputo Protocol on widows’ rights. They were relentless. Twelve hours later, they met again and settled on the brother-in-law from the first family who gave her land. She accepted the man, though felt degraded, she says.

“I had no option. My mother had told me I had to adhere to the dictates of the tradition like she had, lest a curse befell me,” she says.

The elders assigned the mother-in-law and the aunties to the late husband to sit around the hut to listen and confirm the occurrence of the sexual ritual.

Something was wrong; the brother-in-law bawled that he was unable to bolt upright. The elders went around the village looking for herbs to revive him. They returned with some, which they mixed with water and sprinkled around the grass-thatched house. It didn’t work.

One elder suggested that her husband would be the one causing the dysfunction. In unison, they advised him to urinate on his brother’s grave to untie him. This worked and he cleansed her.

The wife of the brother-in-law was, however, unhappy with the arrangement. A year later, he left. By then, she says, her mud house was dilapidated. But the in-laws and the elders restrained her from repairing it until she got a husband. She had to find a man. At the time, she had started brewing illicit brew to earn a living.

She enticed one of her customers. They lived together from 2003 to 2007 when he died. Together, they bore three more children.

Recurring hurdle

At this point, she wanted to start building a brick house. Again, the in-laws and the elders demanded she be inherited to get the green light. Once more, she found another man from the drinking den, but it didn’t last six months because his wife caused chaos, she says.

The brother-in-law who allocated her his land has since died. She says she has defied the push by the remaining brother-in-law and elders to be inherited a fifth time.
“I’m fed up with men,” she says.

What worries her the most now is the likelihood of the two mothers-in-law ganging up to eject her from the homestead.

She has investments in the homestead. She swapped brewing illicit liquor with rearing pigs after she was arrested in 2015. She was taken to court and fined Sh30,000. She says she bailed herself out using money she obtained from selling a cow she had previously bought using profits from the brew business.

In other cases, in-laws are merciless. The departure of their husbands leaves women bare; they become vulnerable to abuse.

Scholastica Masidis Madowo, a widow who weathered gender stereotypes to become the first woman Member of County Assembly, representing South East Alego, the largest ward in Siaya County, breaks down the Luo community’s understanding of a widow, a perception she is working hard to uproot.

“When women are married here, they are viewed as outsiders and the husband is her protector. Once the man dies, you are open to all manner of abuse,” she says.

“We trap our communities in a cycle of poverty when we dispossess widows of the land they are supposed to harvest to feed their children, or sell the surplus to send them to school.”

Matrimonial property

Out of the 31 widows I spoke with, only two were peacefully living on their matrimonial land. The first one, Esther Ondego from Akele South village in Rarieda, farms maize, green gram and millet on her one-and-a-half-acre farm, which she inherited from her husband after accepting to be inherited by her husband's younger half-brother. But the land is still registered in her husband’s name.

The second one, Mary Kere from the same village, lives on a parcel her husband bought near his home and registered it under both their names.

In Nakuru, I spoke with a widow who moved away from her matrimonial home in Shinyalu, Kakamega County, having been tormented by her mother-in-law. She prefers to be identified by her surname: Wanyama.

She says her mother-in-law’s insults had its toll on her mental health. She wanted her out of her son's land after his death in September 2010. She says her husband had been unwell for months and the mother-in-law blamed her for his sickness.

She refused to leave. Her dissent caused her trouble. “Every day, my mother-in-law would stand outside my door and call me a prostitute and a witch who wanted to kill her just like I had killed her son. It was too much,” she recalls.

In December, the same year, she sold all the maize she had in store and moved to Nakuru with her three children. She started an eatery in Kaptembwo, in Nakuru Town East. She says she's at peace and although she is legally free to remarry, she is afraid to do so.

“What if he dies? Will I be accused of killing him? Will the in-laws not come and take everything I have worked so hard for?” she expresses her fear.

The trail of abuse continues

Millicent Aoko's brother-in-law has cut off her source of income and disrupted a sponsorship plan for her children.

By the time her husband died in 2013 after ailing for three months, they had built three mud rooms behind their main house in the Ludhi area of Bondo, Siaya County. They had intended to rent them out.

With no sustainable income besides the meagre Sh100 she got from pulling fishing nets on Ludhi Beach, Millicent entered into an agreement with a local investor to convert the rooms into a kindergarten. He was to pay fees for two of her six children and pay her an additional Sh5,000 ($36.44) in cash every month.

He renovated the structure into iron sheet rooms and operated the pre-primary school for two years during which he met the end of his bargain. Suddenly, the brother-in-law stormed the school and scolded the teachers for trespassing on his land.

This caused friction between the widow and the investor, who then pulled out of the agreement and moved elsewhere.

She says all her in-laws have nothing against her except that one brother-in-law. She says he has tried several times to evict her, but the rest have defended her.

“My biggest worry is how I'll educate my children. If I got money, I’d build 10 single rooms to rent out. That would raise an income to educate them,” she sorrows.

Crops destroyed

In Leganua village, Alego-Usonga, Alice Achieng’ is helpless. Her brother-in-law has been ruthless since the death of her husband in 2020. Last year, she says, he destroyed her plantation of maize and beans.

“Every day I thank God for my life as I don’t know if that is going to be my last day. I’m afraid they might kill me,” says Alice.

Namuje Solonka from Kajiado County in the Rift Valley was married off at 10 years as a third wife, and got widowed at 16.

Her in-laws excluded her from land allocation. They only apportioned her firstborn some piece she estimates to be an acre, where she currently lives. She, however, says her son keeps reminding her that she is a squatter.

“Forcibly evicting a widow from her matrimonial home and land is illegal under Kenyan law, and a succession law bars her husband’s relatives from arbitrarily appropriating her inheritance. But the laws aren’t always enforced and justice is hard to come by, especially in rural areas,” Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu and Najma Abdi jointly write in their article: Securing Women’s Property Rights in Kenya.

The Law of Succession Act (Chapter 160) recognises a widow as her late husband’s dependant who has an express and absolute entitlement to his personal and household effects and life interest.

But why do in-laws and elders continue to violate the rights of widows in total defiance of international, regional and domestic protective agreements and laws?
Alfred Otieno, a village elder in Gombe Ang'asa, Alego-Usonga, says cultural edicts have no respect for laws and change can only happen if the custodians of those traditions are converted to see the light.

Experts in gender and human rights present a different argument

“Cultural norms and practices, to a greater extent, are steeped in gender stereotypes and discrimination,” says Ms Gitau of Equality Now.
As such “women are viewed as subordinates and men are put custodians of the resources. That in the absence of the male representative, she loses her capacity to own property.”

The law on its own is not enough to protect widows from continued abuse, she asserts.

“Two things need to happen for the law to be effective in protecting widows—the widows given back the land and property taken away from them, and the culprits prosecuted,” she says.

“The community, too, should be sensitised that it’s not only a crime to subject widows to inheritance but also a degrading and inhuman harmful practice.”

Everlyne Komba, a gender expert, puts forth a strategy for having male champions in every village as a way out of persistent oppression of women.

“We just need one man who will distribute land equally among his daughters and sons. People will wake up and realise ‘Oh! Women can indeed own land,’ because you know this disinheritance is rooted in the belief that daughters do not inherit their father’s property, so how can they inherit their husband’s.”

Society needs men like Rosemary’s brother-in-law who apportioned her his land even when the mother-in-law had disinherited her. She describes the late as an in-law who was “kind and understanding”.

This is the first instalment of a two-part series on the 21st century widows.