Widow cleansing: ‘Good’ intentions – negative consequences

Gender equalitySocial issues

Notes to broadcasters

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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.


Introductory music. Fade and hold under host.

Greetings listeners! Welcome to today’s programme on African widow cleansing traditions. Though widow cleansing is becoming a thing of the past in many places due to the high degree of HIV and AIDS awareness, it is still practised in some communities. Today we will focus on the western part of Kenya. You might hear helpful tips to help save lives from the negative consequences that are caused by this practice. Our guest speaker Mr. Ogola will guide us in our exploration of this issue. Please stay tuned.

Fade up music then under speaker and out.

Welcome listeners. Widow cleansing or sexual cleansing is a tradition in many African cultures, including some Kenyan cultures. In some cultures, a husband’s funeral normally concludes with a final ritual which involves sex between the widow and one of her husband’s relatives. This is meant to break the bond with his spirit. It is said that the practice saves her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life.

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.

Welcome back listeners. The crisis of HIV and AIDS is now forcing people to think more deeply about widow cleansing and other cultural practices. These traditional sexual practices may treat girls and women as if they had less human dignity than men. I am pleased that political and tribal leaders are starting to speak out publicly against sexual cleansing, condemning it as one way in which HIV has spread. They are now starting to understand that women, like men, need peace of mind and the right to determine their future. Women also need equal access to land and other national resources, including employment.

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.

We have heard much from Mr. Ogola. We have heard what widow cleansing is and how it is done. We have learned that widow cleansing is not only practised in some cultures in Kenya, but in other African countries. We have also heard some of the negative consequences of the practice. I do hope that Mr. Ogola’s words will help us to save our brothers and sisters from suffering. Thank you for listening and good-bye.

Fade up music then out.


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.

Information sources

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.