Meet Kenya's 21st Century widow

Amalo Widows’ Group members in Rarieda on April 12, 2023.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • For decades, poverty and injustice have been part and parcel of the lives of widows and their dependants; they have shed tears for the trauma they suffer at the hands of in-laws, cruel neighbours and even politicians.
  • Even though some communities still follow conservative traditions that deny widows their rights, the Amalo group is proof that an informed widow can help end oppressive cultures.

"See my shoulder, make you rest upon me. You know I got you, na me be your friend indeed…How are you, my friend? How do you do, my friend?"

This is an excerpt from the song, How are you my friend, by Johnny Drille, a Nigerian singer.

Today, the world marks International Widows Day, a day that addresses poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependants. For decades, widows have shed tears for the trauma they suffer at the hands of in-laws, cruel neighbours and even politicians.

Down these decades, however, widows say “enough!” Up to the early 2000s, stigma, state neglect, cultural oppression, fear, ignorance and biased laws, or inexplicit frameworks, silenced them. Sustained advocacy, adoption of the United Nations Resolution on the Situation of Widows and the Maputo Protocol, among many other domestic laws, have seen the situation change. Support groups and widows’ rights organisations have also been on the rise.

The 21st Century widow has a “shoulder to rest on because many players now got her”. And as we mark this day, how about asking these resilient 21st Century widows: “How are you today?”

Through their voices, they will reach out to others beaten down, with hope delivered in Johnny Drille's style: “How do you do, my friend?”

Gladys Sanya offers that voice. She exemplifies the power of a struck down but not destroyed widow. Her husband died in March 2010, after a short illness.            

The 21st Century widow has the power to go against the grain and raise the family as a matriarch, a departure from the 1990s and before when the community pressured widows into remarrying to maintain a patriarch.

Soon after his burial in their matrimonial home in Nyamira County, the in-laws locked their village house and put a demand on her that only after she got a “man figure,” could they open it. They wanted her to be inherited, she says.

Gladys refused to yield. In defiance, she found a locksmith who removed the huge padlock placed on the door. Her action stirred up peace in the home. She says the in-laws fought among themselves in conflict of who warranted “my disrespect”.

Her husband had bought a house in Nairobi through a mortgage. The in-laws wanted to throw her out. She told them to keep off. This infuriated them; they called her names. From this house, she has raised her four children and two are graduates.

The loss hit when her eldest was in Form Four, and the youngest was one and a half years old. She was jobless. Gladys, however, consoled herself with the conviction  that “as for me and my capability, my children will finish their studies.”

Gladys now bids for “small” private and public contracts to supply diverse merchandise through a company she launched in 2012. She says in-laws often take advantage of widows' low economic status, ignorance and timidity.

“There are cases where the widows are orphans and got married young. When the in-laws chase them away, they are basically throwing them into the streets,” she says.

“Others end up as commercial sex workers; so disheartening! When the government or NGOs (non-governmental organisations) think about empowering widows, they should not forget the young ones and those living on the streets.”

She recommends a cash transfer programme for widows, describing their upsetting situations as unmatchable. She also proposes regular widows’ sensitisation to their rights and self-esteem training to raise their confidence. A self-aware widow has the power to defend herself, she says.

Some widows have been emboldened by support groups, as is  the case for Mary Akinyi Odhiambo, who joined Amalo Widows Group in 2015, two years after her husband died.

Her life in her home in Akele South village, Siaya County, had become unbearable. She needed some strength and direction and found it in the group.

“My life turned upside down from the day my husband died. My in-laws wanted to take away my land. Some people in the community were laughing at me. Others threw insults at me in my homestead. I wondered what I had done wrong,’” she says.

“This group has helped me heal. Through it, I’ve known my rights. No one can dare harass me anymore. I can defend myself. I’ll report to the authorities anyone who tried to step on my toes, unlike before when I'd just cry.”

Sarah Onyango, a member of the group, also feels the same. “I joined the group in 2011 after my husband’s death. Since then, I have learnt how to be financially stable. We also share our day-to-day challenges and encourage one another. This has helped us remain strong and resilient,” she says.

Turning the tide

Even though communities still follow conservative traditions, the Amalo group is proof that an informed widow can help end oppressive cultures. There are no official figures of widows who have been violated or overcome the abuse. A 2020 report by the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya, however, gives an indication of their status.

Ten of the 289 gender-based violence cases reported during a three-week period (between April 15 and May 5, 2020) in Western Kenya were of widows evicted from their homes, and physically violated by their in-laws, the report shows.

In Kwale County, under the widows’ right group Tuwajali Wajane Kwale (Let's take care of widows in Kwale), their advocacy has resulted in the County Commissioner including them in the vulnerable group category during the distribution of relief food.

Currently, they are advocating their inclusion in the bursary committees established by the office of the Woman Representative, says Tuwajali Wajane Kwale founder Mwanasha Gaserego.

At the national level, Come Together Widows and Orphans Organisation (CTWOO) has been vocal about eliminating discrimination against widows and creating widow-friendly legislation. The National Gender and Equality Commission, a state agency responsible for promoting inclusion and gender equality in Kenya, has feted CTWOO for its work.

When we interviewed CTWOO founder Dianah Kamande in June 2020, she said: “As female heads of the households, we go through a lot of challenges to make ends meet.
“The long-term solution is to create a widows fund for the poor and vulnerable widows. Widows’ rights are human rights and must be protected.”

A year later, the Ministry of Gender launched a loan facility for widows, and Diana was among the guests who graced the occasion.

Back to the Amalo group, it currently has 28 widows. Forty-eight members constituted the group when it started in 2015. The numbers kept dropping over time as the elderly widows either died or ceased membership because of ageing complications.

Amalo widows make sisal ropes at a member’s home in Rarieda on April 12, 2023.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega I Nation Media Group

“Some were in their 60s, others in their 80s,” says Mary Kere, the chairperson who has led the group since it was founded.

They offer each other emotional support. They also make sisal ropes, which they sell at Sh40 ($0.29) or Sh50 ($0.36) depending on the length. They invest the proceeds in table banking, a pool from which they issue loans, offered at 10 per cent interest, to members to educate their children or expand their businesses.

Many of the members run groceries and eateries, Mary says. Presently, she is the only one selling second-hand clothes.

Over the years, says Mary, their work has become popular and they have attracted training from local women’s rights groups that educate them on their rights, and how to spread the message to the rest of the community.

“They teach us to be strong; not to allow in-laws to take away our property. They inform us to report any attempts of disinheritance to Nyumba Kumi members, clan elders, the area assistant chief and chief, to follow up on the matter,” states Mary.

In 2021, she says, Rona Foundation, a widows’ rights group based in Siaya County trained them in using skits to sensitise the locals to fair treatment of widows.

They also use performance, in public meetings organised by the area chief or in the markets, to inform the people of HIV prevention and the value of educating girls.

“Some elders are, however, not happy with our performance and say we are teaching women bad manners. But we will not stop until they all change how they perceive us,” she says.

Nevertheless, there is something to write home about their empowerment thus far. “In 2021, in-laws wanted to evict one of my members from her land. But she said ‘No. You can’t take away my land,’’’ says Mary. “She reported them to the Nyumba Kumi leader and the chief. They stopped. She now lives in peace.”

Legal loopholes

Although Kenya has laws that protect widows, they manifest glaring bias, which the courts have sought to address.

Under Section 35(1) (b) and 36(1) (b) of the Law of Succession Act, a widow with or without children, loses her life interest (inherited property from her deceased husband) upon remarriage. But last September, the High Court in Meru declared these sections unconstitutional. However, the Act hasn't been amended to reflect this position.

A 2018 Simplified Resource Tool on Inheritance and Related Family Law Practice in Kenya, by the Family Division of the High Court, points out gender discrimination in the law of succession.

These include maintaining the life interest of the widowers upon remarriage, while the widows lose theirs and fathers given priority over mothers, by expressly granting them precedence to inherit a deceased child’s property whenever the late leaves no surviving spouse or children.

Further, it shows the bias in inheritance of property in polygamous marriages. The husband is guaranteed inheritance of full estate when each of his wives dies. But when he dies, his wives have to divide his net estate among themselves and the children.

The Law of Succession (Amendment) Bill, 2020, maintained the loss of interest for the widows, which the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya (Fida-Kenya) protested. Finally, the Bill wasn’t tabled in the National Assembly.

“Having a widower continue with the life interest of the late wife while the widow loses that right, is [encouraging] gender inequality,” argues Vivian Mwende, an advocate of the High Court.

In 2021, a special loan facility under the Women Enterprise Fund was launched after years of lobbying for the government to be conscious of widows’ special financial needs.
However, the interest-free Thamini (value in English) loan is accessible to widows in a group of at least 10 members, 70 per cent of whom must be widows. The group must also be operating three months prior to the loan application.

Mary’s group intends to take up this loan to expand their businesses, she says.

Meanwhile, her group members are among the more than 10,000 widows whom Rona Foundation has mobilised in Siaya County to push for creation of a law on widows.

In 2020, the foundation established a Widows’ Charter, with a call to the Siaya County Assembly to establish a widows’ protection law, says Roseline Orwa, Rona Foundation founder.

The charter outlines the challenges widows in the county face and how to tackle them. The county is receptive to this cause. “The governor (James Orengo) has expressed a keen interest in the charter,” says Maida Nyawade, the county gender director.

“We also have a special protection policy that was developed by the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya. Our plan is to synchronise the charter and policy into a rich comprehensive document.”

The county currently lacks resources to address the immediate needs of widows.

“We don’t have a kitty to support widows. We receive widows who say ‘we have been sent away and my kids have been sent out of school,’ but we have no kitty,” she says.

On the other hand, Roseline of Rona Foundation is hopeful the law will soon be established to create a framework for resourcing widow-related interventions.

Already, she has seen their efforts bear fruit in the Thamini loan product, the UN Resolution on Addressing the Situation of Widows adopted in 2022, and the Wezesha Mjane (enable a widow) corporate social responsibility initiative by the Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority (UFAA).

Innovative initiatives

UFAA chief executive officer John Mwangi terms the Wezesha Mjane initiative the authority’s signature project. “Every financial year, we will commit resources to benefit widows’ projects,” he says.

“Funding for widows’ projects is based on scaling up innovative initiatives widows or widow-led households are already doing.”

He adds: “The design of the widows’ projects differs from one community group to another. While one group is in farming, another is in water harvesting. In this case, UFAA supports what the group is already doing.”

The authority has paid at least 6,000 deceased claims valued at about Sh500 million since 2011, he says. “The majority of the deceased claims made are widows and orphans. Very few are widowers,” he notes.

Roseline, who started the foundation in 2008, is also a widow. She says the widows she helped became the stepping stones to her healing. “They taught me that vulnerability is a tool and a threat. And even amidst the stigma, you have a chance to raise your voice,” she says.

As we mark International Widows’ Day, today, one thing makes Mary Akinyi Odhiambo stand out: her resistance to oppression. “I’m empowered, I know my rights, no one can dare harass me anymore,” she says.

This is the last instalment of the 21st Century widows story.