Widows’ rights have been an issue for centuries, but, with the advent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the cause for concern has grown exponentially.
In Cameroon, when a woman’s husband dies, all of his belongings go directly to his surviving family regardless, of whether he had children. This is because women and children are regarded as property and therefore cannot inherit it, this practice leaves many women struggling to raise children after having been stripped of assets that they feel are rightfully theirs. Furthermore, many are forced to take part in mourning rituals that can last years.
One woman, who is now an advocate for the program, states, “I would get up in the morning and sit with those who came to mourn with me. I could not go out, I could not attend church. It was like you were not your own person.” Joseph Nij, a retired police officer, also told of the hardships he saw some widows face. “They had widows isolated and barefoot,” he said. “Some of them were told not to wear clothes, and could only eat from a separate dish.”
Another woman was forced to urinate in front of a large crowd to prove she had no part in her husband’s death. Other injustices include forcing the widow to have sexual relations with her male in-laws, making her lie next to her husband’s corpse for up to three days, forcing her to remarry or prohibiting her from marrying again, and required displays of public nudity.
The rationale for such behavior is almost as shocking as the abuse itself. A report by Pingpoh Margaret Hongwe from the Cameroon Association of University Women (CAMAUW) reads, “Hardly is any death considered natural. Most deaths are attributed to witchcraft and the power of witchcraft is very often attributed to women. When a man dies, society quickly accuses the wife. The ill-treatment of the widow is considered a punishment, a test of fidelity and a cleansing exercise.”
In Cameroon, one young student is looking to turn things around. Sundze Mamah Natari, known as “Mallam,” is the president of the Muslim Students’ Association of Bamenda (MUSAB), and is working with the fons, or kings, of different regions within the country. He believes that because some of the younger fons have been university-educated, they may be able to approach this issue with an open mind. Noting that change will not happen overnight, Mallam adds, “Some of these traditions have lasted more than 500 years. This project is very sensitive.”
Fortunately, some are starting to pay attention to the issue. This year on June 23rd marked the first International Widows’ Day, which was started by the United Nations to raise awareness on the rights of widows around the world.
– Samantha Mauney