The status of widows is defined by African culture. Widowhood on the continent is a story marred by pain and isolation – devoid of healing. Losing one’s husband is only part of the story in the rite of passage of mourning.

The status of widows in Africa
Gender inequality and inequity are fundamental structures of social hierarchy in African culture. African widows are often exploited and vulnerable upon the death of their spouses. Many women are left destitute when matrimonial property is confiscated by their in-laws. Some women are subjected to further traditions such as widow cleansing. Widow cleansing or sexual cleansing is a custom where a widow must marry or have sexual relations with her deceased husband’s relative, stranger or professional cleanser. This is built on the belief that her husband’s spirit is lingering on earth. His spirit will haunt the widow and community bringing unrest, misfortune, sickness or even death. She must participate in this custom to “divorce” the lingering spirit and save her family from misfortune.

Widow cleansing around Africa
It sounds far-fetched and something out of a horror film. However this is well known
practice in rural areas in Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana,
Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

For example- in Kenya, Nyanza province, Luo widows are expected to engage in
unprotected sex with a village cleanser. Further Luo couples, including widows, are also
expected to engage in sex preceding specific agricultural activities, building homes,
funerals, weddings, and other significant cultural and social events. In Nigeria, the Igbo
customs prescribes for sexual intercourse between a widow and Aja ani—priest—or Nwa nri—dwarf. In some communities the widow is forced to have sexual relations with a stranger. In other communities the widow must wash the corpse and drink the water.

The problem
It is ingrained in girls not to question the voice or authority of men and traditional leaders in rural areas. Widows struggle to stand up against this practice as it is ingrained to be cooperate and “do as told”. The awareness of witchcraft compounds this problems as women do not want to be accused of being witches.

Widow cleansing is a serious human rights violation. Further it is a violation of women’s sexual rights, mental and physical wellbeing. Women are coerced (even forced at times) to have sexual relations against their will. It is a dehumanising as widows must partake in unhygienic practices such as drinking dirty water used to clean the corpse. Only women are subjected to this hurtful practice while widowers are exempt.

This traditional practice is also a health risk. The vast majority of people living with HIV are in low- and middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015 there were approximately 25.6 million people living with HIV in Africa. About 66% of new HIV infections in 2015 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa (UNAIDS 2016). Widows are forced to have unprotected sex with the deceased family member, stranger or professional village cleanser. The HIV status of these men unknown . This cleansing rite fuels the transmission of HIV and STDs across the continent.

This mourning rite of passage is emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and physically harmful to women. This dehumanising practice further increases vulnerability of women across the continent. National governments must ramp up campaigns to educate and bring awareness about this harmful practice. These campaigns must target traditional leaders and people in rural settings. NGOs in the spheres of gender equality and health should allocate more funding and attention to addressing widow cleansing.

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