Assistant Professor Lucky Eboh and Thomas Boye from the University of Makerere in Ghana in an article titled Widowhood in African Society and Its Effects on Women’s Health tackled at length the oppressive and humiliating practices women face as a result of the death of their husbands.
The article says women in Africa suffer emotional, mental and spiritual problems when their husbands die, making it near to impossible to enjoy the best of health due to the pressure to conform to widowhood practice.
There are also implicit sanctions placed on the widow by society, which makes it difficult for women to express their viewpoints in widowhood, hence systematically denying them the right to enjoy the constitutional provisions for good life.
In most cases, becoming a widow in Malawi, arguably the world’s poorest country, is to fall into extreme poverty. The situation is aggravated by the widespread practice of property grabbing, which local authorities, despite efforts to curb it, are far from claiming victory over this gendered violence against women.
In most ethnicities, after the death of her spouse, the family of the deceased husband forcibly, and sometimes violently, takes all possessions from the widow, leaving her with the children with nothing to bank their hope on.
Briefly, in many traditional communities o f Malawi, 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 also robs them of their status. They are suddenly consigned to the very margins of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination and stigma.
In a typical Malawian setting, unmarried women are under the control of their fathers while married women belong to their husbands. This means widows are in limbo and no longer have any protector.
The grief that many widows experience is not just the sadness of bereavement but the realisation of the loss of their position in the family that, in many cases, results in their utter abandonment, destitution and dishonour.
What makes the situation pathetic and the future gloomy, however, is how conspicuously the interests of widows are underrepresented in the commitments by governments, civil society and the international community.
Ratified treaties like the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women barely mention widows, except in the context of ageing.
This is despite the observation that issues of widowhood cut across every one of the 12 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.
A possible explanation for the neglect of this category of systematically abused women is the assumption that widows are mainly elderly women who are cared for and respected by their extended 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.
But in spite of the soaring numbers of widows in Malawi, public policies that specifically target this vulnerable group are yet to be developed so that they can be offered protection, empowering them from poverty and giving them a chance at a dignified life.
According to Mable Ngoleka, Founder of the Women of Action Ministries (Wam), there is need to recognise widows as contributors to the development of the country.
Ngoleka says widows have made contribution to the country by silently but painfully educating their children, some of whom are prominent citizens in society.
She explains that widows face a lot of challenges in Malawi, ranging from food insecurity due to lack of farm inputs and farming land, lack of good shelter, failure to find basic and school necessities for their children, difficulty in accessing working capital for small-scale businesses and victimisation by harmful cultural practices.
“Sometimes widows are victims of character assassination as they are perceived as witches, killers of their husbands and husband-snatchers. This increases their vulnerability to gender-based violence and discrimination,” Ngoleka says.
The pas s ion to see the widow dignified and respected as any other woman in society made Ngoleka resign from her well-paying job with one of the commercial banks in the country to create a platform for all widows to rise up to speak one voice while simultaneously asking those who have something to share with those in most need.
As a widow herself, she felt there was something she could do out of nothing, rising from the status of a ‘nobody’ to a ‘somebody’.
“I urged my fellow widows to put our trust in God who is the husband of widows and a father to our children. I instilled a hard-working spirit to them not to look at other people as the only source of help but they should use whatever talent they have,” she says.
Wam was thus established in 2009 to encourage and empower widows with the necessary skills to envision a successful life through independent and collective action among fellow widows.
Currently, Wam works with widows, orphans and other vulnerable groups to enable them to become self-sufficient and engage in sustainable activities to improve their individual socio-economic well-being.
She challenges the perception that there are no alternatives to begging except – as much as poverty may tempt a widow to fall into exploitative informal sector labour such as domestic service and sex work, hard work; and equal opportunities can lower that risk.
To date, the organisation has managed to empower widows out of poverty by running skill trainings in tailoring, soap making, weaving, material dyeing, food processing and entrepreneurship
“Apart from counselling and guidance, we also mobilize them into Village Savings and Loans groups,” Ngoleka says.
The widows now run small businesses like selling farm produce and bricks, which have improved their livelihood.
Current advocacy trends now indicate that interest groups can only improve status quo if they band together, organise themselves, make their voices heard and lobby for representation on decision making at all levels.
Widows, therefore, also need to champion their cause as progress cannot be forthcoming unless widows themselves are the agents of change.
“Society should ensure that widows’ associations are encouraged and empowered to profile their situation and needs. They must be drivers involved of the projects and programmes, monitor the implementation of new legislation that gives them property, l and inheritance rights; protect them from violence; and give them opportunities for training and employment,” Ngoleka says.