It was an afternoon in July 2013 in a rural community in Kumasi, Ghana, when 87 widows shared the ordeals they suffered at the hands of so-called “customs” after their husbands passed away. During an annual human rights survey by Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), I discovered a cultural practice which very much still stood strong in our society yet was a total infringement of the human rights of widows.
Although their stories differed slightly, all of the women agreed that widowhood rituals served no benefit, but rather brought more hardships to widows. I recall the tears in their eyes as this meeting brought back dreadful memories. A 34-year old widow burst into uncontrollable tears as she recalled how her husband’s relatives took all of the farm lands (the family’s main source of income) because, according to custom, the husband’s nephew was the rightful heir. She was forced to consume nothing except a soft drink once a day continuously for 40 days as part of the cleansing ritual. She recounted that the resulting stomach problem she developed was considered punishment for her alleged crime of killing her husband with witchcraft. Eventually, she and her seven children who were between the ages of two to 14 years were pushed out of the small house they lived in. With no one to turn to, she resorted to begging on the street and hard labor where she faced continued sexual and labor exploitation.
Widowhood within some cultures in Africa and other countries is characterized by degrading and inhumane rituals that can amount to torture. These rituals inflict grave abuse of widows. The encyclopedia of Death and Dying in its report, “Widows in Third World Nations” reported that
“…in Nigeria … 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…”
Widows suffer other types of violations, as well. Widows may be deprived of their home, agricultural land, business assets, and sometimes their children. Notwithstanding the promulgation of major Treaties like Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that guard against these violations, these practices still persist. These harmful practices inflict both physical and psychological violence on women and create an opportunity for abuse and infringement of their rights. It supports unequal power relations between men and women. Through these disproportionate cultural practices, many widows are exploited by male relatives of their deceased husbands. Instead of protecting and supporting these widows, they deny them any access to their husband’s land or property.
Among some tribes in the northern part of Ghana, widows are subjected to a customary practice called “Widow Inheritance” which is a form of Levirate marriage (a system in which the brother of a deceased man is made to marry the widow of his brother). In this case, the widow is forced into a marriage regardless of her consent. This permits the deceased man’s family to choose a male relative to marry the widow, preventing the widow from making her own decision to remain unmarried or married. It essentially promotes forced marriage. If a widow insists and succeeds in remaining unmarried after the death of her husband, she is bound to face maltreatment and rejection by her husband’s family and community. She is usually accused of witchcraft, having bad luck, or having a hand in her husband’s death. On the other hand, when they accept to enter into a marriage, they are faced with a lot of hostility by the wives and children of the men they marry. Also they stand the risk of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Also the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to equal protection under the law and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health and requires the “free consent” of both parties to enter into marriage. The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa specifically addresses the issue of widows, spells out that state’s parties shall take the necessary legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights through the implementation of the following provisions:
“…widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading
treatment…a widow shall automatically become the guardian and
custodian of her children….”
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects a number of human rights, including that men and women shall have the same right to enter into marriage and the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent. CEDAW also mandates state’s parties to recognize women’s equality with men before the law with the same legal capacity as in civil matters. Importantly, CEDAW requires state’s parties to:
“[M]odify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped
roles for men and women.”
Widows are supposed to be protected from degrading, inhumane treatment, and unwarranted disinheritance under these laws. Despite most African states being parties to these international and regional treaties, the plight of widows remains unaddressed in most countries and the pains they suffer seem to be viewed as normal and inevitable by the societies in which they live. In every community there are widows neglected to the harshness of hunger and poverty. Harmful practices such as the widowhood rituals are challenging to modify, and attempts to change or eliminate them demand the collaboration and cooperation of traditional authorities, community leaders, government, and the society at large.
By Abigail Ofori-Amanfo, a 2016-17 Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota who is completing her professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights. A women’s right activist, she works to educate rural women and girls in Ghana on their rights and what steps they can take to prevent them from being violated.
Learn more about the best practices in drafting legislation on maltreatment of widows.