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Edo Women

Widowhood: Life, Death Rituals, Mourning And Burial Rites

With Queenneth Aikhionbare

In many traditional communities of developing countries (especially in Africa), widowhood represents a “social death” for women. It is not merely that they have lost their husbands, the main breadwinner and supporter of their children, but widowhood robs them of their status and consigns them to the very margins of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination and stigma.

Widows in these regions are generally the poorest of the poor and least protected by the law because their lives are likely to be determined by local, patriarchal interpretations of tradition, custom, and religion. Unmarried women are the property and under the control of their fathers; married women belong to their husbands. Widows are in limbo and no longer have any protector.

Across cultures they become outcasts and are often vulnerable to physical, sexual, and mental abuse. It as if they are in some way responsible for their husband’s death and must be made to suffer for this calamity for the remainder of their lives. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a widow—especially in the context of the AIDS pandemic—to be accused of having murdered her husband, for example, by using witchcraft.

The grief that many third world widows experience is not just the sadness of bereavement but the realization of the loss of their position in the family that, in many cases, results in their utter abandonment, destitution, and dishonor.

In some African cultures, death does not end a marriage, and a widow is expected to move into a “levirate” arrangement with her brother-in-law (“the levir”) or other male relative or heir nominated by his family.

The children conceived are conceived in the name of the dead man. In other ethnic groups she may be “inherited” by the heir. Many widows resist these practices, which are especially repugnant and also life threatening in the context of AIDS and polygamy. Refusal to comply may be answered with physical and sexual violence.

While in earlier times such traditional practices effectively guaranteed the widow and her children protection, in recent decades, because of increasing poverty and the breakup of the extended family, widows discover that there is no protection or support, and, pregnant by the male relative, they find themselves deserted and thrown out of the family homestead for good.

Widowhood has a brutal and irrevocable impact on a widow’s children, especially the girl child. Poverty may force widows to withdraw children from school, exposing them to exploitation in child labor, prostitution, early forced child marriage, trafficking, and sale. Often illiterate, ill-equipped for gainful employment, without access to land for food security or adequate shelter, widows and their children suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate health care or other forms of support.

However, there is an astonishing ignorance about and lack of public concern for the suffering of widows and their families on the part of governments, the international community, and civil society, and even women’s organizations. In spite of four UN World Women’s Conferences (Mexico 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, and Beijing 1995) and the ratification by many countries of the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), widows are barely mentioned in the literature of gender and development, except in the context of aging.

Yet the issues of widowhood cut across every one of the twelve critical areas of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, covering poverty, violence to women, the girl child, health, education, employment, women and armed conflict, institutional mechanisms, and human rights.

One explanation for the neglect of this vast category of abused women is the assumption that widows are mainly elderly women who are cared for and respected by their extended or joint families. In fact, of course, far from caring for and protecting widows, male relatives are likely to be the perpetrators of the worst forms of widow abuse.

If they are young widows, it is imagined that they will be quickly remarried. In fact, millions of widows are very young when their husbands die but may be prevented by custom from remarrying, even if they wish to do so.

Despite a mass of anecdotal and narrative information, public policies have not developed to protect widows’ rights. Despite the poverty that widows and their children experience, organizations such as the World Bank have not yet focused on this hidden section in populations.

All human societies have sought ways to make death acceptable and to provide opportunities for expressing grief and showing respect to the dead person. In societies where the status of women is low, the mourning and burial rituals are inherently gendered. Rituals are used to exalt the position of the dead man, and his widow is expected to grieve openly and demonstrate the intensity of her feelings in formalized ways.

These rituals, prevalent in India as well as among many ethnic groups in Africa, aim at exalting the status of the deceased husband, and they often incorporate the most humiliating, degrading, and life-threatening practices, which effectively punish her for her husband’s death.

For example, in Nigeria specifically (but similar customs exist in other parts of Africa), a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, “the first stranger she meets on the road,” or some other designated male.

This “ritual cleansing by sex” is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this “ritual cleansing” is not merely repugnant but also dangerous.

The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night. Many customs causes serious health hazards.

The lack of hygiene results in scabies and other skin diseases; those who are not allowed to wash their hands and who are made to eat from dirty, cracked plates may fall victim to gastroenteritis and typhoid. Widows who have to wait to be fed by others become malnourished because the food is poorly prepared.

Across the cultures, widows are made to look unattractive and unkempt. The ban on spicy foods has its origins in the belief that hot flavors make a widow

prostitute,” “witch,” or “more lustful.

Yet it is widows who are often victims of rape, and many of the vernacular words for “widow” in some parts of the world are pejorative and mean “sorceress.” The terrible stigma and shame of widowhood produces severe depression in millions of women, and sometimes suicide.

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