At 35-years old, Esther Atema’s world fell apart. Her husband died and suddenly, she found herself not only coping with the heartbreak of losing a spouse, but also the stigma that attaches itself to widows in rural Kenya coupled with the pressure to undergo the widow cleansing tradition.
Villagers would scream, “Witch!” when they saw her. Drunken boys would chase her and beat her mercilessly if they caught her. She was ostracised from the local community because by not agreeing to widow cleansing, she was deemed as “unclean” and valueless.
The only way for her to be “cleansed” was by a sexual initiation ritual – one that widows are expected to undertake to remove supposed demons. The process sees the woman being forced into having sex with either a male relative from her husband’s family or a stranger – typically, a paid sex-worker. After having sex on the floor – sometimes outside of the house so that the entire community could witness the act – all garments and sheets used will be burnt. The man then shaves her head to show that she has now been “cleansed”. A chicken will then be slaughtered, cooked, and eaten together. The ceremony can last anywhere between three to seven days.
After almost a year of resistance, Atema finally relented after being pressured by her husband’s family. When the medley of fear and superstition became too unbearable, she had sex with a stranger.
“I felt humiliated,” Atema told PRI. “But I was told my children would die if I didn’t go through with it.”
Apart from being spurned by the village, widows are led to believe that their children would be harmed and that not going through with the ceremony could attract other obstacles into their lives. And despite high rates of HIV and AIDS in the country, the use of a condom is forbidden during the ritual.
“Why don’t women have a choice?” argued Atema. “You don’t know who this person is; they could hurt or kill you. No one checks if they’re HIV-free.”
Widow cleansing was banned since 2015 in Kenya, yet laws are not always that effectual when dealing with indoctrinated rural belief systems. It is a story that happens to hundreds of women across Africa who become susceptible to this form of sexual violation after the passing of their husbands. According to the Loomba Foundation, there are over 258 million widows worldwide, and nearly 10 per cent live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Kenyan tradition, however, it is not simply the death of a spouse that forces women to undergo this primitive cleansing tradition. A woman may also be forced to endure the ritual during agricultural rites, weddings, funerals, social or cultural events, and during house building. And should she speak out against the practice or show resistance, she may face excommunication or run the risk of harm coming to her and her children.
Roseline Orwa, the CEO and Founder of the Rona Foundation, runs a community centre in Kenya that supports widows and orphans. In an interview with LSE, she said, “There are few ongoing interventions to change attitudes and behaviours in remote poverty-stricken villages. Policies and laws to outlaw these long-standing practices remain elusive when to challenge culture in Kenya is seen as a bad omen in itself – on both the individual and shaming the larger community. It is perhaps for this reason that community leaders and the political class have remained silent on addressing the issue, resigning widows to a category of women vulnerable and forgotten; anyone seen to challenge these practices is shunned, socially rejected and becomes in the eyes of the community an outcast.”
In a culture that is heavily influenced by superstition and witchcraft, folklore has thrived in dictating social and economic realities. Even the women, themselves, who fall victim to these traditions often believe that should they not go through with it, grave danger, bad luck, diseases, or misfortune may befall them and their loved ones. As such, the stigma continues to be grossly discounted in a culture that struggles with gender equality. Moreover, this renunciation of women’s freedom of choice and rights reinforces the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.