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Empowering Kenya's Widows

Two NGOs seek to reverse the discrimination against Kenya's widows.
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A widow in Kenya is given a mosquito net from a local NGO. Photo courtesy of Scott Chachon.

Ugunja, Kenya:

The plight of poor widows is ignored worldwide. After the death of a husband, a woman is often left vulnerable and open to exploitation. In male dominated societies, the absence of a husband often means insecurity and even family members may take advantage of this.

A UNICEF report from 2010 indicates that there are at least 115 million widows facing high levels of poverty across the world. Some are subject to physical and emotional abuse. Others are evicted from their homes. Widows are routinely stigmatised and left to fend for themselves.

But one organisation in Kenya, the Ugunja Community Resource Centre (UCRC), is passionately committed to addressing these issues. Through education and the building of homes, the UCRC seeks to empower widows living within Ugunja area of the Nyanza province in Kenya.

Discrimination and stigma

The experience of Margaret Ngii, a mother of seven, is typical of that of a widow in Kenya. Ngii lost her husband seven years ago. Several months after the burial, she realised that her husband’s portion of land had already been sold for private development.

“After his burial, things drastically changed for the worst, my in-laws took all the properties my late husband had bought, nothing was left to me; the culture does not recognise the well-being of a woman,” she told Think Africa Press.

Ngii says that most of the widows in the area do not have the right to inherit any property from their late husbands, forcing many widows to return to their ancestral homes.

“I have tried to seek help from the local authority but all in vain…I am forced to work as a house helper so that I can feed my seven children”.

After the loss of her husband, most of her friends left her to struggle alone.

“What many widows go through in our area is shocking; we are isolated and left alone. The number of suffering widows is growing day after day…The situation is even worse when the woman is illiterate, which is common in the area; some are accused of the death of their husband.”

Ngii worries how her children will cope. “It has been hard for my children to construct a traditional hut since their dad’s piece of land was sold after his burial; I do not know where to go from here.”

Empowering women

The UCRC has helped many widows in the area who had been robbed of their land by relatives. Many are now seeking legal action to claim back their land. Ngii, too, believes that justice will be done and she will succeed in taking back possession of her husband’s properties.

“The organisation has enabled me to know my rights as a woman, many people still believe that women do not have rights of property. After the civic education, I have learned that the law protects and safeguards the rights of a woman too.”

Sylvia Wambare, an administrator at the UCRC, says that widowhood has robbed many women of their status and consigns them to the margins of society where they suffer discrimination and stigma.

“We have witnessed cases where some women are chased away and even accused of killing their husband, some of them are even beaten by their close relatives.”

Most of the widows in Ugunja area are landless and are faced with the serious challenge of providing for their children. This has contributed to the high rate of HIV infection in the area as “most of the young widows are sometimes forced to sleep with men so that they can support their small families; men are taking advantage of the current situation”.

Wambare believes that the majority of mistreatment of widows in the area is the result of cultural beliefs which are still strong in some regions.

“Many of these cruelties and biases against widows are ordained by religious beliefs and social practice. When a woman loses her husband, she loses her place in society. She is regarded by her marital family and society in general as ‘inauspicious’.”

But the centre has helped many widows in the area by providing legal and financial support since poverty levels are rising.

“Land is a very serious issue in the area and we also make sure that their rights as widows are not violated.”

Government action?

Ngii wishes the government would assist the Ugunja widows. Government education services are insufficient. As a result, the work of NGOs like UCRC is crucial, especially in reaching remote and underprivileged groups.

Under the guidance of another NGO, a support group called Women’s Empowerment Link (WEL) has been established in Nairobi. WEL empowers women to realise, exercise their rights and freedoms, and access opportunities and privileges aimed at gender equality.

The organisation helps to increase the bargaining power of women and encourages them to voice their opinions. According to Jacqueline Ng’ang’a, a legal aid project officer at WEL, women in Kenya are often denied their rights, and decisions about their lives are made by their husbands.

Ng’ang’a told Think Africa Press that “the biggest obstacles facing the majority of women in Kenya are that most of them are semi-literate in most rural and informal settlements in the country”.

Under the Law of Succession Act in the Kenyan Constitution, women’s rights are well defined. Nevertheless, few are able to exercise them. Ng’ang’a says that most of the women in Kenya are still afraid to participate in politics because it is dominated by men.

“We are trying as much as possible to empower women at large so that any form of discrimination can be a thing of the past…Women can now exercise their rights without any form of political, social and religious discrimination. Affirmative action has come out well in our constitution.”

Nonetheless, Ng’ang’a hopes for more government action. Whilst significant progress is being made in urban areas, women in the countryside continue to be discriminated against. Their lack of formal education makes them easy targets. Ng’ang’a argues that the government should introduce civic education in rural areas to address this problem.

Undoubtedly, despite significant steps, considerable gender inequality remains in Kenya. The treatment of widows, especially in rural areas, is emblematic of these issues. However, progress is being made. As organisations such as the UCRC and WEL expand and grow in strength, discrimination against widows will become less commonplace.

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