The following article first appeared on Voicemale Magazine, 23 February 2017
By Elias Muindi
Because of the number of men who have died from HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, Kenya has a large population of widows. Although regarded as key members of Kenyan society, they face enormous challenges. Chief among their impediments is “widow inheritance,” a cultural practice followed by the Luo ethnic community of Nyanza and western Kenya. Its central feature compels a widow to cohabit with her brother-in-law, a male cousin or other close male relative, a policy officially sanctioned by the family of the deceased man, clan and community. The original idea of the tradition was meant to be helpful – the widow getting to choose from the family of her husband someone she would like to cohabit with. Doing so would mean the family of the deceased would continue to care for his widow and children. That way, the thinking went, the deceased man’s wealth (if he had any) would remain in the family, and the widow, in whom much has been invested, particularly through her dowry, would not leave the matrimonial home to remarry elsewhere.
Today, traditional custom still dictates that all widows must be “inherited.” If they refuse, they are forced into submission; if still adamant, they are isolated by their late husband’s family, and ostracized by the clan and community at large. They are also declared “unclean” to participate in family/community activities or enter others’ homes until such time as they are inherited and thus once again “clean.” This systematic act of gender injustice, and violence and abuse toward women, deprives them of the right to live their lives free of oppression, able to make independent decisions about their future and the futures of their children.
An “inherited” widow is more or less “married” to the “inheritor.” He is lord and master over her, including her sexuality, her children, and all of her late husband’s properties. Even if he is a ne’er-do-well, he will be able with relative impunity to enjoy – and in some cases squander – all that she and her late husband worked for. If inclined to use violence, he can beat and abuse her and her children without any fear of reprisal. He can force her to sire more children against her will and he has full control of her children’s upbringing and property.
Widow inheritance as forced on such women is dehumanizing, undignified; it is repugnant. It saps women’s energy, undermines their confidence, affects their health, and inhibits personal development. It is violence inflicted on already traumatized women solely based on their gender and circumstances – an outright abuse of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Since they are often accused of being responsible for their husbands’ deaths, violence is often meted out against widows. In addition, in some tribal communities, they are sometimes killed because widows are often branded as witches. The underlying motive is economic; the accusers tend to be the male relatives (including brothers-in-law or stepsons), who want to control their land. Rape, forced marriage, and sexual abuse are common. Widows infected by sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) after being raped, and who become pregnant, often are too ashamed to seek professional help.
Many widows experience economic hardship. They are compelled to send their children to work instead of sending them to school. Some feel so trapped they resort to prostitution to earn money and are sometimes infected with STDs. Employment opportunities are scant, both because of their limited mobility and the discriminatory gender division of labor.
In response to their bleak prospects, I initiated a women’s empowerment program through the Rhodelias Foundation, in connection with my role as program officer of Kenya MenEngage Alliance (KEMEA). My wife Rhoda and I started the foundation to support less advantaged people, especially widows and orphans, through economic empowerment and education. I began by mobilizing 50 widows, registering them in a self help group called “Wumiisyo wa Aka Ndiwa Mbuinzau,” which means ‘’The Patience of the Widows of Mbuinzau.’’ Using local materials, the Patience of the Widows built a large chicken house. Through donations from the Rhodelias Foundation, and Bemidji State University’s Geography Club (in Minnesota), they bought 100 chickens. Today, the number has grown to more than 700 chickens. They sell some to buy food, pay school fees for their children, and for medication. The chicken and eggs provide good nutrition for the women and their children; some have become entrepreneurs, selling chickens and eggs in local markets.
‘’I used to misuse my sister-in-law because she had no option other than relying on me for her upkeep,” said one brother-in-law. “When she became a chicken entrepreneur and improved her economic status, she earned a lot of respect with the relatives. We consult her on every decision we make as a family. She even supports my family. I realize that women’s empowerment lays a strong foundation for the family and society.’’
Despite their success, the Patience of the Widows still face challenges. These include a lack of resources to buy more equipment related to raising the fowl, and expanding and building an additional chicken house. Controlling disease is another potential hazard since a single infected chicken can spread disease to the flock if not recognized early.
Today these women feel empowered. They have earned respect and dignity. The violence and ridicule they once faced have ended. Currently, Wumiisyo wa Aka Ndiwa Mbuinzau supports 81 widows, five orphans (who are at the university), 32 students in secondary school, and 51 children in primary school.
As a gender activist involved in engaging men and boys for gender equality, I wanted to “walk my talk” – to constructively address one of the triggers sparking violence against women and to help restore women’s sense of agency. My efforts have opened other men’s eyes. Because of the success they have seen in the widows’ poultry project, they are assisting their spouses to start income-generating activities of their own.
In order to promote a just and equitable society, men need to begin by accepting the importance of women’s economic empowerment. Then they need to provide a good working environment, and resources (both human and financial) so they can replicate efforts that have worked to empower women. Men must recognize the importance of promoting women’s sense of self-worth, assisting them in accessing opportunities and resources through affirmative action and promoting their career growth. In so doing they will recognize in women’s empowerment a path to men’s sense of fulfillment.