Notes to broadcasters
Widow cleansing is a practice in which a widow must have sex with a brother to her husband or other relative, or with a village cleanser. This is done before she is taken in marriage by the brother or other relative of her deceased husband, and, in the Kenyan tradition, it is meant to provide protection for the widow, her children, and for the whole village.
This tradition exists in some cultures, not only in Kenya but in countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo, Ghana and Nigeria. It’s important to note that the meaning and purpose of widow cleansing may be different in different cultures, different countries and different regions. If widow cleansing has a different meaning and purpose for your listening audience, please adapt the script appropriately.
Though the traditional practitioners of this practice had good intentions, in this script we’ll hear about some of the negative consequences of this practice.
It’s important to note that some women and men have begun to reject this tradition, and that politicians and other leaders are starting to speak out against it.
ScriptIntroductory music. Fade and hold under host.
Widow cleansing dates back centuries and is rooted in the belief that a woman is haunted by spirits after her husband dies. She is also thought to be unholy and “disturbed” if she is unmarried and abstains from sex for some period of time. 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 this ritual before she can be inherited by her husband’s brother or other relative.
In western Kenya, the tradition of widow cleansing and inheritance is practiced by a number of communities, which not coincidentally also have the highest rate of HIV infection in the country. For example, in 2000 the HIV-prevalence rate in Nyanza province, where widow cleansing and inheritance are more commonly practiced, was 22 percent, compared to a national HIV-infection rate of 13 percent. Despite the risks, the tradition of widow cleansing and wife inheritance continues because most widows believe they have no alternative. If they refuse, they risk rejection by their families and communities.(Short pause) Widow cleansing is a custom that I strongly believe denies women their basic human rights and increases their risk of HIV infection. The widow is not only risking HIV infection. She also risks losing all her property if the man who inherits her does not really love her, but only wants to inherit the family property. It is not only widow cleansing that promotes the spread of HIV, but other customs such as polygamy, exchanging a wife for land or cattle and giving of dowries. These customs expose women to the risk of infection because the parties involved do not test for HIV. Women are also at risk because sexual relations are not preceded by formal equal consent. Musical break. Fade up music then under.
Some people are beginning to understand that what is killing women is not that they are ignorant, but that they have continued to remain faithful to their husbands and the entire community. While men may be promiscuous even within marriage, women are expected to remain faithful. Hopefully, listeners, we are beginning to learn something about respecting women’s rights. Hopefully, we are learning that, when we give women equal opportunities just like men, families, communities and the whole country benefit. Women’s rights should not be misunderstood as leading to family breakdown. Instead, they should be established as a way to help two lovers to share ideas and plans to build a strong family and together grow wiser and stronger. Thank you.Fade up music then under.
Contributed by: Rachel Awuor, Ugunja Community Resource Centre, Ugunja, Kenya.
Reviewed by: Christine Lwanga, President, Daughters of Africa, Inc., and consultant on Canadian International Development Agency’s “HIV/AIDS, Women and Development” project in Uganda, Malawi and Ghana; Flossie Gomile, former Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Research at Malawi Polytechnic, currently Malawi’s Assistant High Commissioner to the UK.
Thanks to Elaine McNeil, education, gender and HIV/AIDS consultant and Project Manager of the Daughters of Africa “HIV/AIDS, Women and Development” project.
- UNAIDS, UNFPA and UNIFEM, undated. Women and HIV/AIDS: Confronting the Crisis.
- IRIN news, 2005. Broken bodies — broken dreams: violence against women exposed. Chapter 12, Abuse of Older Women.
- Anonymous. Kenyan women reject ‘sex cleanser’. Sister Namibia, November 1, 2003.
- Irish Times magazine, January 20, 2007. Women’s aid.
- The Guardian, August 12, 2006. Committed to change: the greatest need.
- IRIN News, 28 March 2003. Traditional culture spreading HIV/AIDS.
- Sharon LaFraniere, May 11, 2005. AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing’. New York Times.
- Marc Lacey, March 5, 2003. Rights Group Calls for End to Inheriting African Wives.
Universal standards which provide a framework for women’s human rights in the international community include:
- The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women
- The Beijing Platform for Action, and
- Protocol to the Africa Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa
Most African countries have ratified these conventions and protocols, and there is a need to intensify advocacy efforts so that governments are held accountable to their obligations and promises. Governments are being prodded by leaders of the region’s fledging women’s rights movement, who believe that lack of control over their sex lives is a major reason 6 in 10 of those infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women.