A vile custom that must go...by Beatrix Nyakisumo (975 words)
Over a year after her husband died, Kenya's first High Court Judge, Justice Effie Owuor, remains enslaved to a tradition she fervently detests: as a widow, she has to be "cleansed" before she start leaving "normally" again.
And when people gathered recently at her rural home in Kayadhiang village in western Kenya for the first anniversary of her husband's death, she made her intention to break the yoke of traditional bondage clear to all.
Many in the compound were unprepared for her message. "The Luo community treats widows like dirty people who have to be cleansed before they can integrate into society again. As the chairperson of a government task force that is reviewing the legal regime and how it affects women, it is humiliating to be harassed by men when I'm still mourning my husband," said the judge.
Her privileged status in Kenya's society aside, Justice Effie Owuor's anger at the widow-cleansing and inheritance practice among the Luo seems shared by many a widow. Three days after her husband is buried, a Luo widow is normally required to have sexual intercourse with a stranger before she is "inherited".
Those opposed to the practice say that it dehumanises the widow, denies her the option to look for a suitable partner and in this age of AIDS exposes her to the HIV. Indeed, Kenyan authorities say wife inheritance is a key contributing factor to the high incidence of AIDS among the Luos.
Authorities estimate that one in every five people in the populous Luo western province of Kenya have the AIDS-causing virus. Further, the government says that one in every three widows are forced to undergo the widow-cleansing ritual.
Posed Justice Owuor: "What is dirty about me that requires to be cleansed; what good is there for widows in the custom?" Terming the practice repugnant, Justice Owuor averred that the practice should not be practised in a modern society.
Being a woman of substance, Justice Owuor's attack on widow cleansing and inheritance reverberated far and wide in Kenya. It generated sometimes heated debate on the relevance of the practice as the country approaches the new millennium.
The Luo believe that when a man dies, his wife instantly becomes defiled by an evil spirit. The spirit - tipo - has to be cleansed by having sexual intercourse - with a social misfit no less - and the preferred choice is often a vagrant of unsound mind. They believe that the act chases away the evil spirit.
Reverend Father Phabian Opiyo, the Pastoral and Youth Affairs coordinator in the Archdiocese of Kisumu in western Kenya says that practitioners believe that physical contact with a widow who has not been cleansed impacts negatively on fertility.
Physical contact with an uncleansed widow is thus taboo. "This includes contact with close relatives like sisters, brothers, nephews and her siblings," says Fr Opiyo. Until she is cleansed, adds Father Opiyo, the widow is not allowed to visit anybody.
She can neither hold children until she's cleansed, nor pluck a fruit from a tree, milk a cow nor till her land. "Before she is cleansed, she is isolated and lives in cruel loneliness and meets with instant hostility and scorn should she attempt to break her confinement. She can even be accused of causing death should misfortune befall those she has been in contact with before the cleansing ritual," laments Otieno Ochido, the project coordinator of the Kisumu-based Widows and Orphans Society of Kenya , a Non-Governmental Organisation that helps victims of the practice.
Ochido adds that newly-bereaved widows sometimes find themselves unable to fend for themselves since the pre-cleansing seclusion virtually leaves them with both hands tied behind their backs. They cannot fetch water from the river or go to the market. And if they do - nobody will sell anything to them or buy from them, he points out.
30 year-old Mary Atieno declined to undergo the cleansing ritual when her husband died and returned to her parents' home hoping for solace. She didn't get any though. "I got a rude shock when my parents told me I would bring misfortune to the homestead and had no option but to retreat to my marital home," she says.
Poverty, says Ochido, leaves most widows without the option to reject the practice. "The poor widow is vulnerable and easily buckles under pressure to the cleansing rite," he says. Aside from the sexual blackmail that is associated with the cleansing ceremony, Ochido says that widows sometimes also lose the property that is left behind by their dead husbands.
Professing to be a strict Christian has saved some widows from the jaws of the practice. Fr Opiyo says that the church views the cleansing of widows as ungodly. "To perceive a dead Christian as a source of an evil spirit to his surviving widow is uncouth, unchristian and unreasonable."
In the Kisumu Archdiocese, a group has been formed to protect widows from being forced into the practice. The St Monica Group, says Fr Opiyo, brings together widows and even those whose spouses are alive but are opposed to the custom.
And since there have been cases where widows who declined to be cleansed are cleansed posthumously, the group is also fighting to protect the widows even after they die. Fr Opiyo challenges widows to reject harmful traditions.
The Beijing Platform for Action called for the elimination of harmful socio-cultural practices that are directed towards women, adolescent and young girls.
Patrick Jaleny, a legal officer with the Widows and Orphans Society of Kenya blames the lack of legal awareness among victims as a key reason why widows continue to be enslaved by the practice.
It is against the laws of Kenya to force a widow to be cleansed. The law of succession on the other hand gives the widow the sole right to their husband's estate. But do they know that?
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