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Wife Inheritance and Ritual Cleansing October 19, 2006 2:00 PM

The customary practices of wife inheritance and ritual cleansing continue in parts of Kenya with some permutations. The original practice of wife inheritance (known as ter in the Dholuo language spoken in western Kenya) was a communal way of providing widows economic and social protection. Since widows were not entitled to inherit property in their own right, being inherited was a way to access land. An inheritor was supposed to support the widow and her children. Although the terms "wife inheritance" and "cleansing" are sometimes used interchangeably, wife inheritance generally refers to the long-term union of a widow and a male relative of the deceased, and cleansing typically refers to a short-term or one-time sexual encounter with a man paid to have sex with the widow. These practices reflect the common belief that women cannot be trusted to own property and the belief that widows are contaminated with evil spirits when their husbands die. Wife inheritance and cleansing practices take a number of different forms depending on the clan. First, there is non-sexual wife inheritance, whereby the coat of an inheritor is placed in a widow's house overnight to symbolically cleanse her. This generally applies to widows beyond childbearing age. Second, there is inheritance involving long-term sexual relations, typically with a brother of the deceased, in what amounts to a marriage. Third, there is a combination of cleansing and inheritance, whereby a widow first has sex with a social outcast (known as a jater in Dholuo) who is paid to have sex with her to cleanse her of her dead husband's spirits, and is then inherited by a male relative of the dead husband. Fourth, there is cleansing alone, where a widow has sex with a jater to cleanse her but is not inherited permanently. Women's property rights closely relate to wife inheritance and cleansing rituals in that many women cannot stay in their homes or on their land unless they are inherited or cleansed. According to one women's rights advocate, "Women have to be inherited to keep any property after their husbands die. They have access to property because of their husband and lose that right when the husband dies." Women who experienced these practices told Human Rights Watch they had mixed feelings about them. Most said the cleansing and inheritance were not voluntary, but they succumbed so that they could keep their property and stay in their communities. Wife inheritance is often portrayed as an act of generosity in that the widow will have a man to "look after" her and confer the legitimacy of being in a male-headed household. But men clearly benefit not just from their inherited wife's labor and childbearing potential, but also from the property the deceased husband leaves behind. A law professor observed, "Wife inheritance is a very common way to access property. If women resist, they are sent out of the household."Steven Oketch, a forty-three-year-old man from the Luhya ethnic group, told Human Rights Watch that he inherited his cousin's widow three months after his cousin died. Oketch initially moved into the widow's house and has since built a home and planted sugar cane on the land. As one widow told Human Rights Watch, a man who inherits a woman "inherits her home." A paralegal who works with widows added: "Men feel that if they stay with a woman, they will get the dead man's clothes and property. Younger brothers of a husband feel that since the husband died, now he can take the brother's belongings. They don't consider the wife of any consequence." Thus, even if wife inheritance was originally protective and if cleansing is supposed to be a benevolent way to "purify" widows, these practices are now in many ways predatory and exploitive Wife inheritance and cleansing practices also pose frightening health risks. These practices are common in western Kenya, home of Kenya's poorest province (Nyanza Province has an absolute poverty rate of 63 percent49) and the most heavily AIDS-affected district (Kisumu district had a prevalence of 35 percent in 200050). According to one news report, one in three widows in western Kenya is forced to undergo the cleansing ritual.51 Condom use has lagged, in part because cleansing is not considered complete unless semen enters the widow and because women's inequality makes it difficult to demand condom use.  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
 October 19, 2006 2:03 PM

Human Rights Watch learned of the cleansing practices in one village from Guy Udoyi, a jater who has cleansed at least seventy-five widows in the two years he has worked as a jater. He has not been tested for HIV. Udoyi, who is paid in cash (approximately KSh5,000 or U.S.$63)52 or livestock (cows, goats, and hens) by widows' in-laws, told Human Rights Watch: I don't use condoms with the women. It must be body to body. I must put sperm in her.... If no sperm comes out, she is not inherited.... I don't do anything to stop pregnancy. Two widows have had my children. I don't act as the father or give assistance, but I'm considered the father. I've heard about how you get AIDS. I'm getting scared. You get it by having sex, and you must use a condom to prevent it. But the widows don't want to hear about condoms. They want skin to skin. There are inheritors who are infected with HIV. They don't use condoms. Udoyi explained that superstitions, which he shares, motivate this custom. He also said that the occupation of jater, though in great demand, is not respected. "People think it's a dirty job," he said. "They look at me as a fool whom the spirits [of dead husbands] won't haunt.... We fear devils. The spirit of the deceased can haunt you." He explained that if a widow is not cleansed, she and her children will have bad luck and be ostracized. "Women are forced to do this," he acknowledged. He said there is no comparable cleansing for widowers. Fear of HIV/AIDS has not resulted in a drastic reduction of these practices. According to a representative of a women's organization that works with women affected by HIV/AIDS, "The traditions haven't changed much due to HIV/AIDS." She observed: Widows have gone public with AIDS. Everyone will know she's HIV-positive, but in-laws will still insist that she be inherited. They feel that the evil spirits of the dead husband will follow otherwise.... Few people use condoms. They're not widely accepted. For a woman to try to negotiate condom use, she can be beaten or accused of having other men. They believe cleansing has to be skin to skin. Before a woman is inherited, she must be cleansed. This is mostly done by drunkards or crazy men. That person won't bother to use a condom.... Widows who refuse to be cleansed or inherited are called "dirty women." Communities put so much pressure on women to be inherited. If they're not inherited, they can't go into other people's homes, their children are threatened with being thrown out of the clan, and they won't dig a grave for the widow if she dies. Taken from  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
 October 19, 2006 2:18 PM

Thank you Janice, it is very informative and detailled, you know all these tribes in Africa has different customs and habits, the only common thing they have is addressing woman as a property. We have to stop them from doing that. Great job, I am a fun of your writing, I think I am the first one who reads for you. thanks  [ send green star]
 October 19, 2006 2:25 PM

Thank you Zak for your kind words.....  [ send green star]  [ accepted]
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