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Protecting widows from dangerous customs

Headstones and unmarked graves scar the Nyanza countryside, a region where HIV prevalence is as high as 15 percent.
(Richard Lough/IRIN)

Peres Atieno didn't know what AIDS was when her husband died 11 years ago, nor did she suspect she might be HIV-positive. What she did know was that custom required her to be inherited by her dead husband's brother, a relationship that would ensure she and her children were taken care of.

Atieno wasn't ready to become the wife of another man, but felt she had little choice. "They would have chased me away if I had refused, so I had to do what they said because they were the in-laws and they were in charge," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

The ethnic Luo community of western Kenya has followed the practice known as wife inheritance for generations. However, as HIV has taken a grip on the community, the coercion of widows like Atieno into new relationships has unwittingly helped spread the virus.

Nyanza Province, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is estimated to have an HIV prevalence of over 15 percent, but in some parts of the province as many as one in four people are infected.

Fuelling the spread of HIV

When Atieno's husband died in the mid-1990s, AIDS was little more than a rumour, highly stigmatised and shrouded in silence. Her parents-in-law preferred to believe their son had been murdered.

Not long after she acquiesced to custom and married her brother-in-law, Atieno gave birth to a baby boy, but the infant died. She tested positive for the HI virus soon afterwards, but her new husband abandoned her before she could persuade him to be tested. "The rumour is he is infected," she said.

''I had to do what they said because they were the in-laws and they were in charge.''

Around the village of Orongo, 10km from Kisumu, the main city in Nyanza Province, the effects of AIDS mark the landscape: homesteads stand derelict while herds of goats graze on the grass that covers scores of unmarked graves.

"Everybody from this family has died except one son; there are so many graves here," said Florence Gundo, 63, pointing to a plot of land. She set up a community-based organisation, the Orongo Widows and Orphans Group, and now dedicates herself to helping women widowed by HIV/AIDS.

The group runs a small volunteer-staffed nursery for 50 children orphaned by AIDS, who are a testament to the havoc the pandemic is wreaking on communities in the province.

Besides ignorance and stigma, Gundo believes the Luo tradition of forcing infected widows to remarry has hastened the spread of the virus in this region.

"If I don't know my status and I am inherited I might infect him," she said. "The man can then go to his home and he is going to infect his [first] wife too."

As in many ethnic communities in Kenya, a Luo man is free to marry as many women as he can support, but polygamy is widening the circle of people at risk of HIV infection.

Gundo has enlisted respected village elders to help break down the taboos that surround HIV/AIDS and encourage widows to go for testing.

"When a widow has been left behind, it is a must for her to go for an HIV test and even for the inheritor," said William Guti, a local village elder who works closely with Gundo. "If they are to come together, they must know their status."

The stigma attached to AIDS has led to a shift in the practice of wife inheritance that has done little to help widows. In-laws are increasingly turning their backs on women whose husbands have died as a result of AIDS because of the widespread assumption that they are destined to follow soon after.

Property disinheritance

Standing by the ruins of what had been her home, Milka Achieng remembered the reaction of her in-laws when she tested HIV-positive soon after the death of her husband.

"They behaved angrily and told me I could not stay there as I would only bring them another coffin," she recalled. "One day I went to town and when I returned they had removed the sheet-metal roofing. They beat me and chased me away."

Achieng and her three children have moved from house to house for over a year, living in squalid conditions in the slums of nearby Kisumu.

Traditionally, widows like Achieng have been denied the right to inherit ancestral land, which is passed down through the male line or can also be allocated by traditional chiefs.

Kenyan law now gives widows limited rights to their deceased husband's property, but in-laws are often determined to hold on to as much as they can, out of fear the woman will remarry outside of the family. Property disinheritance is a relatively new phenomenon, but is on the rise.

"Kenyan law gives a woman the right to inherit her husband's personal effects and to hold his real property, such as houses and land, in trust for their children. Interestingly, men are able to inherit the property outright if their spouse passes away," said Anne Amadi, head of litigation at the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya, which provides legal assistance to disinherited widows.

"The origin of the widow-inheritance custom was to protect the dead man's family, but today the inheritors are using it as a way to gain access to the property; the culture is really being abused."

Florence Gundo is slowly but surely winning the support of village elders and local chiefs in helping widows win back their property, and Nyanza's widows are learning that modern Kenyan law gives them rights to property that tradition and tribal custom denied their mothers and grandmothers.

"Now I know that it is my right I can stand firm and say, 'I married your brother, I have his children; I have a right, I am the rightful custodian of this house'," said Betty Tom, 28, one of a growing number of widows in Orongo who have refused to be inherited, despite the threats of in-laws to strip them of their inheritance.

''They behaved angrily and told me I could not stay there as I would only bring them another coffin.''

After long negotiations with the village elders, her dead husband's house was registered in her name. "My father-in-law has divided each and everybody's land; I have been given mine," Tom said. "He told me, 'this was for your husband, now this is your land and nobody is supposed to interfere with it'."

Cases like Tom's are still rare. Few women in rural areas know their rights, and fewer still are able to prove the legality of their marriage in a court of law, as most are common-law wives. Culture and superstition also prevent many men from writing a will, in the belief that it will hasten their death.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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