Impact

WIDOW CLEANSING: UNMASKING THE UNSPOKEN TABOO

Kenya is a culturally rich nation with diverse traditions and practices. In most of these cultures, there exists important practices which celebrate life-cycle transitions, perpetuate community cohesion and transmit traditional values to subsequent generations. However, many harmful and discriminatory practices also exist in many different forms and in various parts of Kenya.

One of the oppressive practices that still persist in some parts of western Kenya is widow cleansing. When a woman is bereaved of her husband, she is considered unclean and is culturally expected that the she undergoes cleansing lest she is considered an outcast thereby socially ostracized. The practice is conducted under the cover of darkness and remains an unspoken event in the life of the widow.

Anyango (not her real name) lost her husband two years ago. For a whole week after the passing of her husband, mourners gathered in her company and Anyango was tasked with hosting and taking care of the many visitors denying her an opportunity to mourn her departed husband. On the eve of the burial, Anyango was required to spend the night in the same room with the corpse. This, according to tradition, ascertains that she had no hand in the death of the husband, the causative agent of the death notwithstanding.

Anyango tribulations did not end here. Considered unclean, she was to remain an outcast until when cleansed. This practice is born out of the superstition that the death of her husband makes her a bad omen in the village. Unless cleansed, the cause of her husband’s death will spread either in the village or to any other person that associates with her.

It had not been more than two days before help came in the form of an old village lady. Her walking stick led the way indicating she was partially blind. “Anyango, are you ready?” she asked as she made her way into the house. She simply nodded, with fear clearly registered all over her face. She ordered Anyango to remove the coffee table that was centrally positioned in the circular mud thatched house and asked her to spread the reed mat instead. The old lady seating close to door partially turned back and said, “Donji” meaning, ‘enter’ in the local Luo language.

A tall rough-looking man tottered in and came straight towards Anyango. She was startled and as she attempted to get up hastily the old lady intercepted with her commanding voice ordering her to remain seated. The old lady instructed Anyango to cooperate, as this was the only way to expel the omen and with that gave the man a nod. He immediately turned to her and forced her to the ground. The old lady continuously reminded Anyango that if she resisted, she would be an outcast. The threats continuously being uttered shattered her resistance, and though she did not cooperate, neither had she the resolve to fight off the man. Abused, and reduced to nothing, too ashamed to look straight at her tormentor, Anyango was informed that the spell was now broken and that she should prepare for a feast that will allow any of the brothers of the deceased to inherit her.

As sad as her troubles seem, Anyango’s plight is not isolated, her story is a common story among the widows in Luo Nyanza. It is such superstitious practices that violates women’s rights and dignity that RONA foundation combats. RONA is dedicated to the protection and advancement of widow rights in Kenya. Under Wajibu Wetu, Rona is implementing Mjane Kwanza project that seeks to promote the inclusion of marginalized widows in social, economic and advocacy processes in Kenya. The project is implemented in Mombasa and Siaya Counties.


Widow

Nyalego Okwe and Judith, widows from Siaya County, part of the target group of the Mjane Kwanza Project

Through the project RONA seeks to educate women like Anyango on their rights and empower them to seek legal redress when those rights are violated. The project also targets Council of Elders, community leaders, elected leaders and the community at large to influence societal attitude and favourable actions geared towards empowering widows and other marginalized women.

Through such forum, voices like Anyango’s can be heard and this unspoken taboo is brought to light, reducing the stigma and equally empowering them to demand their rights. Rona’s director and founder, Roseline Orwa says that through their efforts they have been able to bring to light oppressive practices that widows are subjected to. Through the forums, counselling and support groups, women like Anyango are able to combat the stigma and helping them to bounce back and positively engage in development processes.

“More and more widows are now coming forward and their collective voice is being amplified and gets heard,” says Roseline.
Widow

Through Mjane Kwanza project Rona expects a reduction of gender based violence and widow-cleansing practices and that sharing the stories of women like Anyango can inspire change across the widest of spectrums even beyond the project target locations.

Widow
Stella Maris Owino a widow and widow’s group leader from Rarieda, Siaya County at a past meeting

Visit Mjanekwanza website

Our Partners
Rona timbo forum syd haki mashinani wajibu wetu power woman
.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
Rona foundation web stats