In this 2014 file photo a woman crosses from Somalia into Kenya at the border line in town of Mandera, Kenya. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Her husband’s death should have meant banishment from her matrimonial home in western Kenya, according to custom, but Caroline Peres Achieng Oyumbo’s return there 13 years later is being hailed as a breakthrough for widows’ rights to property.
The mother of two was sent away from her village in Ngeri-Kisiambi hills in Homa Bay County in 2003, after she refused to be “inherited” – by another man – following her husband’s death.
Wife inheritance is a Suba custom requiring a widow to remarry following certain sexual rituals that “end mourning”. The custom has been blamed as a factor in the spread of AIDS.
Today, however, the 43-year-old primary school teacher is awaiting the completion of construction on her new two-bedroom house in the village despite not having been “inherited” – an outcome that would usually be considered unthinkable.
“Managing to bend this customary rule is a major breakthrough that gives hope to several women in this community who are suffering silently under some of these dehumanising cultural beliefs,” Oyumbo said.
Oyumbo, who teaches at a school on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, won her reprieve through a project known as Working with Cultural Structures to Ensure Access to Justice by Widows and Orphans, run by the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), and elders’ and widows’ support groups.
With their help, she ended an isolation caused by a custom that is prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and which rights groups say infringes on the rights of widows in the Suba and Luo communities to freedom, property ownership and basic dignity.
According to Suba and Luo beliefs, becoming widowed means that a woman becomes “unclean”, and needs “cleansing”. Until a widow has been “cleansed” and then “inherited”, she is forbidden to undertake tasks such home repairs, or growing vegetables.
If a new widow fails to initiate the “cleansing” process, the elders take matters into their hands. If she fails to comply with their orders, she is banished from her matrimonial home.
That was the harsh reality for Oyumbo, after her husband died of cancer. “I was banished, and for 10 years and for all that time, I lived in isolation with my two sons in a rental house in Mbita town, 20 km from our home,” she said.
Allan Maleche, executive director of KELIN, said the organisation has resolved more than 300 similar cases in Homa Bay and Kisumu in western Kenya.
“We have come across several devastating cases where women in particular have been denied their right to own and inherit property based on cultural beliefs,” Maleche said.
In order to be cleansed, custom requires a widow to undergo the “Tero Chola” ritual, where she must have sex with a member of the community who is chosen to sleep with new widows without protection for the first time after their husbands are buried.
After this ritual, the widow is expected to marry another man of her choice, known as “Jater”, which means “inheritor”.
A study published in the Journal of the International Aids Society in 2014 found that Luo and Suba couples, including widows, are expected to have sex before taking part in certain activities, such as agricultural work or home repairs.
Without a “Jater”, Oyumbo would not have been allowed to carry out such activities, or to attend certain social events.
Maleche said people are starting to see that such customs can be harmful, including the requirement to have unprotected sex. “People are beginning to understand what is good, and what is not good for them especially in this era of HIV,” he said.
KELIN builds the capacity of village elders, church leaders, local administration officers and other respected figures to understand how cultural practices are retrogressive, and their impact on an individual’s health, social status and dignity.
These partners are helping to promote dialogue between those harmed by cultural practices and the community, Maleche said.
KELIN also teaches communities about their constitutional rights – including the right to own property – and to make their own decisions without interference based on customs.
NEW LEASE OF LIFE
Since she returned to her matrimonial home in 2013, Oyumbo has begun tracing other women in a similar situation to hers who may be suffering in silence, with the help of local paralegals.
She aims to help them solve their cases through KELIN’s Alternative Dispute Resolution approach, a traditional justice system that is recognised by the constitution.
In the past five months, Oyumbo has traced seven widows who were cast out as she was. All have been reunited unconditionally with their families in their matrimonial villages.
“There are several known cases of widows suffering in silence,” John Ouma Daniel, chairman of the paralegal team in Mfangano, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But the only challenge is that many of them are not willing to speak out because deep down their hearts, they believe they are outcasts,” he said.
“From what we have seen so far, these cases can be resolved if traced, and the affected – who are in most cases women – [can be] given a new lease of life,” Daniel said.
That is true for Oyumbo, who has been allocated 10 acres of land which she will start cultivating at the end of the year, for the first time since the death of her husband 13 years ago.