For many women in Kenya, especially rural Kenya, losing a husband is much more than the devastating blow that comes with losing a spouse, especially if he was the family’s sole breadwinner.
This is because some Kenyan communities still practice oppressive customs that disregard widows’ property rights. Consequently, these helpless women are often neglected, mistreated and sometimes even evicted from their matrimonial homes.
Poverty, illiteracy and ignorance of the law of inheritance consigns the widow to sometimes unspeakable suffering, and when authorities that should be on their side collude with greedy family members to defraud them, this backpedals any hope of justice for such women.
Four widows from Homabay and Kisumu Counties, where the tradition of wife inheritance is still practised, narrated to DN2 their agony following the demise of their husbands.
CAROLINE AYUMBO'S STORY
Caroline Ayumbo’s refusal to be inherited after her husband’s death in 2003 put her at cross purposes with her in-laws, a vicious dispute that would end up at the District Officer’s office.
When a woman is widowed, among the Suba, she is considered ‘unclean’. A ceremony must, therefore, be held to “cleanse” the widow. The ritual includes disposing of the man’s personal articles such as clothes, and acts as a precursor to the woman being inherited by another man.
The widow, Caroline explains, must then have intercourse with men called “jokowiny” to be cleansed. According to her, these men are people of little or no worth in the community, and are paid to do the job.
It is a ritual that has contributed to the spread of HIV in this region, and Caroline, a teacher, was vehemently opposed to it.
“A widow is not allowed to freely interact with men. If you visit a household where there is man, you are not allowed to sit on a chair. You instead sit on the floor,” she says, adding that one is also not allowed to serve food to a man.
“If you offer refreshments to a male visitor in your own house, someone else has to do in on your behalf. If the visitor leaves an item such as a coat in your house, he is forced to live with you. It is a primitive custom.”
She goes on,
“If there is a man genuinely interested in you and who desires to marry you after your husband’s death, he must wait until you have gone through the process of cleansing. I wanted nothing to do with it.”
Her in-laws were however adamant that she go through it, and a cleansing ceremony was organised behind her back by her father-in-law. Upon discovering the plot, she made it clear that she would not go through the ritual.
For this, she was forced to leave her matrimonial home. Feeling violated against, she left her home with her two children and settled in Mbita Township.
Her tribulations were far from over though.
“My late husband was a clinical officer and had money in the bank and was also insured. After his death however, his sister took all his documents.”
Without these papers, Caroline could not claim her late husband’s property, and her father-in-law seized the moment to try and disinherit her, through forgery.
“Somehow, my late husband’s family managed to forge my death certificate, the plan to claim my husband’s benefits and seize his accounts - my children were both below 18 years then.
The plan, however, fell through when employees at the Sacco suspected forgery and notified Caroline.
“It took my intervention to prevent my father-in-law from being arrested for forgery, since he is the one that presented the fake documents,” she says.
After this embarrassment, the wedge between her and her in-laws deepened.
“They did not want to see me or even involve me in any family affairs. For the sake of my safety and that of my children, I decided to stay away, and in fact did not set foot in the homestead for 10 years,” she recalls.
In 2004, Caroline trained as a paralegal and was registered as a member of the Suba-Mbita Paralegal Network. In 2013, she was selected to represent the paralegal network in a workshop organised by the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network, an NGO that advocates for the rights of widows in counties in Western and Nyanza.
“The theme of the workshop was women’s property rights in relation to culture. Bringing together community elders, lawyers, local chiefs in Mbita and widows, the workshop was a great eye-opener to me. I came from the workshop much wiser.”
She learnt that she had the right to inherit her husband’s property, a right that is anchored in the constitution, but to make any solid claim, she required the support of local leadership, which is where her problem lay.
“I could not involve the area chief, who I suspected was colluding with my husband’s family to defraud me. He was the one who had certified my death, knowing too well that I was alive,” she explains.
Luckily for her, the District Officer (DO) for the then Sindo Division and other elders prevailed upon her family to hand over her land.
“As a paralegal, I help other women who have been through similar ordeals as myself by reassuring them and educating them on their property rights and where to get help,” says a much revitalised Caroline.
The tug-of-war between her and her family has since ended.
“My husband’s land is now firmly under my custody. “There were disputes surrounding his money, so I surrendered it to the public trustee. With the support of the administration, no one can step over the line.”
MARY NYALIK'S STORY
The tribulations of Mary, 50, from Ahero, Kisumu County, started in 2007 when her husband died, leaving her with their three children, then five, four and one year.
To her shock, Mary was thrown out of the family home hardly six months after losing her husband.
“My in-laws told me that I was not one of them. They said that since their son and brother was no more, I could not stay in the home anymore.”
Whereas this added onto her grief, it also emboldened her to fight for her rightful share of the family’s land. At first, she swore not to leave her husband’s home, but when her in-laws pulled down her house, her persistent caved in, and she had to leave.
“I was breastfeeding my youngest son at the time. Thankfully, my brother rented a small house for us at Ahero shopping centre, where I lived for more than eight years.”
Neglected by people who had always been supportive when her husband was alive, life has not been kind to Mary and her young family.
To look after her children, she works as a casual labourer in rice paddies.
“I don’t have any land to till and grow my own crops. I am forced to do odd jobs such as washing clothes for a fee and other household work for better off families in Ahero to support my family. Things have been really bad,” Mary says, adding that her brother, Hesbon Otieno, has been of great help to her and her family.
“I don’t know how life would have been without his assistance,” she says.
RISPER ATIENO'S STORY
The story of Atieno, 31, from Seme South is no less tragic. Atieno lost her husband in the year 2000. For a teenager with two children to take care of, and without any solid support, circumstances compelled her to marry her husband’s cousin, for support.
Her lack of education, Atieno had dropped out of Standard Eight in 1998 in when she became pregnant, made her even more vulnerable when her husband died.
“My husband’s cousin took me after my husband died. I could not refuse since I needed a man to support me. We went on to have two children together,” she narrates.
She still lives on her late husband’s land, but says that poor climatic conditions in Seme South affect any meaningful practice of agriculture.
To support her family, she gathers firewood from Ndere Island, a forest on Lake Victoria, which she then sells to residents of Seme, a dangerous expedition that involves crossing the lake by boat every day.
“It is a tiring job too, but I must feed my family and educate my children. I don’t have any other source of support,” she says, having since walked out of the union with her second husband, for what she describes as a strenuous relationship with her in-laws.
“I am tired of being married. I also can’t bear the burden of a fifth child, as it is, I am struggling to take care of my four children; an additional baby would only make matters worse.”
Antonina Akumu’s story
ANTONINA AKUMU'S STORY
Akumu, 56, from Sondu, Kisumu County, was widowed in 2005. At the time of her husband’s death, the couple had separated. Akumu was living in Naivasha, Nakuru County, working as a casual labourer at a flower farm. Her husband lived in Kisumu with their four children.
“I wasn’t invited for my husband’s burial. I only learnt about his death several months after he had been buried. I felt betrayed,” Akumu says with evident bitterness.
“In 2006, my husband’s family asked me to relocate to Kisumu to reunite with my children. Out of the bitterness I still felt at being side-lined during his burial, I refused. I had a feeling that the family was plotting something fishy against me.”
Akumu stayed on in Naivasha, grieving the husband she never got to bury, and adamant that she would not return home. After four years, however, her brother-in-law convinced her return to Kisumu, which she reluctantly did in 2009.
Little did she know that she was putting her head in the guillotine by quitting her job to return to her matrimonial home. Helpless, she was stripped of her four acres of land; her only inheritance from her husband.
“My late husband had one brother and one sister, who is married. The brother repossessed the land and leased it out, leaving me with only a quarter of an acre,” she recounts.
“I regretted leaving my job, but I was the only living parent our children had, so they needed my presence and support. I stayed on,” she says.
For more than five years, Akumu and her three youngest children, 20, 15 and 12, have been living in abject poverty.
“I am only able to grow cassava and millet to feed my children. The piece of land is too small to grow anything for sale. My lastborn failed to join secondary school this year because I was unable to raise money for his school fees,” she says.
As she recounts her agonising experience in the hands of her in-laws, her words resonate with raw emotions of distress, bitterness and helplessness.
Meanwhile, her efforts to involve the local administration to resolve the dispute have borne no fruit. The area chief, she says, has never demonstrated willingness to take action against the injustice.
“My predicament is well-known to him. I have brought this matter to his attention many times. He promises to intervene, but for five years now, he has done nothing,” laments Akumu.
A HAVEN FOR WIDOWS
The Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network (KELIN) is a non-governmental organisation that was registered in 2001 to “protect and promote HIV-related human rights.”
Over the years, however, the NGO has expanded its scope to cover other areas such as sexual and reproductive health rights, key populations and women’s land and property rights.
Since 2010, KELIN has been at the forefront to fight for widows’ right in the Western and Nyanza regions. The organisation targets widows and their children who have been disinherited and left homeless due to oppressive cultural practices.
Owing to the inaccessibility of the judicial system in Kenya by most of the rural folk, the NGO uses traditional cultural structures such as councils of elders to mediate in injustices meted out to widows.
Tabitha Saoyo is a human rights lawyer and the deputy director of KELIN.
“We have an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) organ which is a cultural support programme. This organ advocates for the rights of the vulnerable, marginalised and excluded populations in the society,” explains Saoyo.
The organisation has a court users committee composed of lawyers, elders, widows, paralegals and chiefs. The committee is constituted by the presiding judge in the area.
“We identify women in the region who have been disinherited as a result of cultural practices. We then seek to resolve the dispute outside court through mediation between the aggrieved widow and her family.”
A beneficiary of the ADR, Caroline Ayumbo describes it is an effective, cheaper and simpler mode of conflict resolution.
“It is a social setup where parties present are known to each other. This allows every person to freely express their innermost feelings. The mediation is also conducted in the native language, which accommodates all the parties,” Ayumbo says.
“Taking the legal path to resolve a domestic dispute usually strains family relationships, hurting any possibility of solving the matter at hand. The widows in most cases cannot afford legal fees, making it hard for them to go through the legal process.”
After solving the dispute, Saoyo says, the widow is allowed to resettle at her husband’s home.
“We then document the event. These records are legally-binding documents that can be used in a court of law if disputes arise in future,” explains Ayumbo.
So far, the NGO has successfully resettled 200 widows through the programme.
The organisation also helps widows without shelter to put up houses on their land. Risper Atieno, Antonina Akumu and Mary Nyalik are all beneficiaries of KELIN’s housing programme.
“About 150 of the women we have resettled are not able return to their land because of financial constraints and other hardships. KELIN goes further to look at their financial state. We link up the widows with other support groups such as community-based organisations and churches,” says Saoyo.
Founding members of KELIN include human rights lawyer Catherine Mumma and the chairperson of the National Gender and Equality Commission, Winfred Lichuma.