Widow Cleansing - Appalling Practice


Violence against women still is universal, and while it has many roots, especially in cultural tradition and customs, it is gender inequality that lies at the cross-cultural heart of violent practices. Violence against women is deeply embedded in human history and its universal perpetration through social and cultural norms serves the main purpose of reinforcing male-dominated power structures.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for “equal and inalienable rights” for all people, “without distinction of  any kind.” It requests the right to security of person, the right not to be held in slavery or subjected to inhuman treatment, the right to equal protection before the law, and the right to equality in marriage. But weak excuses such as that of cultural relativism coupled with discriminatory social norms and practices, the under-representation of women in decision making structures and processes, a lack of resources to fight for women’s rights and, above all, the absence of societal and/or political will provide strong impediments to giving women the same Human Rights that men enjoy.

Some of the violence traditions that women have to face are life-threatening. There are for example customs such sati, which forces many Hindu women to immolate themselves on top of the funeral pyres created for their deceased husbands (there’s no sati for males of course), or women in some African countries being subjected to violent exorcism rites or even being killed after being accused of witchcraft. Many of these culturally sanctioned crimes are financially motivated, eliminating the wife as the inheritress of her husband’s estate and having it being transferred instead to the couple’s sons or the father’s family.

A different way of abusing women’s Human Rights takes place in many African countries, including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Uganda, where women actually become part of their husband’s estate – supposedly in the widow’s interest to offer her security and protection. An act of humiliation itself, the inheritance of women also culturally approves acts of “widow cleansing”.

Widow cleansing dates back centuries and is practiced for example in countries like Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria. It gives a nod to a man from the widow’s village or her husband’s family, usually a brother or close male relative of her late husband, to force her to have sex with him – ostensibly to allow her husband’s spirit to roam free in afterlife.

It is also rooted in the belief that a woman is haunted by spirits after her husband dies or that she is thought to be unholy and “disturbed” if she now is unmarried and abstains from sex.” Another traditional belief holds that a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. In many instances a widow must undergo the ritual before she can be inherited. Because this practice is obligatory, it should be considered a form of gender-based discrimination that results in sexual abuse.

Given the widely spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, the deadly implication nowadays of wife inheritance and widow cleansing is the degree to which the custom can transmit HIV. A widow who is HIV-negative faces the risk of contracting the virus from the man who inherits her. In other cases, a widow who has contracted HIV from her late husband – who may have died from an AIDS-related illness – will transmit the disease to her inheritor when she is forced to have sex with him. In the context of polygamous practices, this can set off a chain of events in which the man transmits the virus to his other wives, who may in turn infect others if they are widowed and inherited, and so on.

Notably, in Western Kenya, the tradition of wife inheritance is practiced by a number of communities – which not coincidentally also have the highest rate of HIV infection in the country. The HIV-prevalence rate in Kenya’s Nyanza province, for example, is 15 per cent and considerably higher that the national average; in Kano (Angola), two thirds of people who have tested for HIV have turned out positive. Despite the risks, the traditions of wife inheritance and widow cleansing still continue because most widows have no alternative. If they refuse, they risk rejection by their communities.

A widow cleanser in Malawi explained that the “tradition dictates that he sleep with the widow, then with each of his own wives, and then again with the widow, all in one night.” He admitted that he never uses condoms and acknowledged that he may be infecting hundreds of women, or even himself. A Kenyan widow cleanser expressed equal disregard for condom use. He said that the widows “wouldn’t really be cleansed if the condom was there.”

Even women who are aware of the risk of HIV infection may submit to cleansing rituals because of community pressure. One woman from Malawi described her feelings of resignation and shame: “I was hiding my private parts. … You want to have a liking for a man to have sex, not to have someone force you. But I had no choice, knowing the whole village was against me.”

Another Malawian woman, Paulina Bubala, who is now the leader of a community group for people living with HIV/AIDS, first participated in an alternative rite but was ultimately forced to undergo a widow-cleansing ritual. For the first step of the cleansing rite, Paulina and her co-wife “covered themselves in mud for three days. Then they each bathed, stripped naked with their dead husband’s nephew and rubbed their bodies against his. Weeks later, the village headman told them this cleansing ritual would not suffice. Even the stools they sat on would be considered unclean, he warned, unless they had sex with the nephew. “We felt humiliated,” she said, “but there was nothing we could do to resist, because we wanted to be clean in the land of the headman.”

Both ironically and sadly it’s the growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS that has begun to have an impact on the practice of widow cleansing, with men becoming concerned about losing their own lives (despite such attitudes still displayed by such widow cleansers as the one mentioned above). The problem though is that these reflections are not a result of a male dominated society’s concern about the welfare of its women, an therefore the question arises: what will happen to ‘uncleansed’ widows, especially those infected by HIV through the previous sexual practices of their late husbands? Will they be treated as outcasts because they are regarded as unclean, haunted and a threat to their communities – in which case they might be worse off than having been submitted to widow cleansing?

It is unlikely that the HIV enforced withdrawal by men from widow cleansing will lead to changes in male attitudes towards women. And it therefore doesn’t matter whether it is witchcraft persecution or the whether the motivation for sati, widow cleansing or other life endangering and a woman’s dignity degrading practices are forced upon a woman or voluntary undertaken by her: no virtuosity of semantics or cultural self-defence can justify or condone such acts of nihilism and debasement. Any cultural tradition that sanctifies the death or humiliation of a human being is totally unacceptable.