SECTIONS

Widows want legal frameworks put in place to improve their lives

 

Pastor Joseph Kefa with Nabongo church members.

 

Dorothy Ngare Odware watches as her grandchildren run around the compound. Seeing them play gladdens her heart. However, that joy is often suppressed by realisation that she has to fend for them, yet her means are severely limited.

Odware lost her husband in 1997 and has raised her four daughters single-handedly since then. In a highly patriarchal society that values boys more than girls, not having a son compounded her misery.  

Today, as the world marks International Widows Day, Odware, like many other widows, is unaware of it, or the significance of the day. The UN celebrates Widows day every June 23 to draw attention to such people’s experiences.

This year’s theme, ‘Invisible Women, Invisible Problem’ aptly captures the plight of widows today. These women are often neglected, not just by close family members and society, but by their governments as well.

“I do not have a son. That meant I could not inherit my husband’s land, according to our customs. As a matter of fact, after his death, I had to seek permission from my in-laws to till the land. I was left to take care of my daughters, and it was not easy. They are all grown now, but I have these grandchildren to take care of as they keep me company,” Odware says.

After Linet Milimu’s husband died in 2018, everything changed. “My in-laws turned their backs on me and my children. They chased us away. I have been forced to do menial jobs, washing people’s clothes and making mandazi just to survive.”

Linet says it has been one hardship after another, even as she struggles to put food on the table and see her kids through school.

The Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine and the attendant exponential rise in the cost of living expose widows, as it does many Kenyans, to a lot of hardships. Neglected by relatives, denied inheritance and having lost their breadwinners, widows suffer a lot. “With the rising cost of living, I might be forced to wind up this business. A 2kg packet of wheat flour goes for over Sh200, while cooking oil retails at over Sh460 per litre. We cannot make any profit,” Milimu says.

“I know that many widows go through serious existential challenges. Especially now that the cost of living has gone through the roof. Without businesses or jobs, most of them do not have means to take care of their families,” Hellen Masindet says.

“It’s unfortunate that most widows lose everything upon their husbands’ death. There are instances local administrations are sought to arbitrate in matters of inheritance, but take sides with in-laws who end up disinheriting the widows,” she adds.

Masindet says this year’s theme should galvanise government into action. The poverty experienced by widows and their children greatly impacts their health. Many also suffer sexual harassment and violence.

The case of Rebecca Moi, a 42-year-old woman from Cheptul village in Lugari, captures this succinctly. After her husband’s death in 2018, his family insisted she should be inherited by one of her brothers-in-law. She declined. As punishment, her in-laws demolished her house and she ended up in the cold with her four children. Some churches spare time to honour widows. “The government should look into the welfare of widows,” Nabongo Friends Church’s Quaker men’s Pastor Joseph Kefa says.

“It should set up a welfare fund to cater for their needs since most of them have no jobs or businesses... We have introduced programmes through which widows are given food and financial assistance from the tithe we collect. We would like to do it more regularly, but the widows are many and our income small”.

Masindet says government should come out forcefully to defend the rights of widows who, in most cases, have no one speaking for them. “Government should protect widows and their property. It is also upon government to create projects to help widows take care of their families. Widows should be given special consideration in the universal healthcare plans. The majority of them do not have the means to pay monthly National Health Insurance Fund premiums, yet are susceptible to health problems,” she said.

In the absence of legal frameworks that protect widows, many will be consigned to misery by poverty, ignorance and customary laws that have no relevance in the world today.

It is important that society stops treating widows like commodities and empower them economically.