These Kenyan widows are fighting against sexual ‘cleansing’ ceremonies
When Esther Atema’s husband died, she was treated like dirt. People suddenly looked at her funny — villagers shouted, “Witch!” as she walked past. The local boys in Siaya County, southwest Kenya, would get drunk and chase her down the road. If they caught her, they’d beat her to a pulp.
At 35 years old, she had become a widow. And, in some rural parts of Kenya, widowhood means you’re of little value. Culturally, widows are considered impure, and tradition dictates that they must be cleaned — or “cleansed” — of their partners’ death. The aim is to chase away the demons; the ritual requires women to have sex — either with a relative or stranger.
Sure enough, one year after his death, Atema’s late husband’s family forced her to go through the cleansing process.
“I was very afraid,” she said. Atema has a kind, round face and stared off somewhere into the distance before touching on a universal emotion: “And I was still heartbroken [over my husband].”
The order can vary slightly but the ceremony typically goes like this: You begin by having sex on the floor. In the morning, you burn your clothes and the sack you slept on, and the man shaves the widow’s hair. Sometimes, it happens outside, in front of the house — where the whole neighborhood can see. Together, you slaughter a chicken (a staple in the diet here), which you cook and eat. The ceremony lasts three days but can be drawn out for up to seven.
“I felt humiliated,” said Atema. “But I was told my children would die if I didn’t go through with it.”
If you refuse to be cleansed, you’re shunned from society. Women, like Atema, believe their children will be harmed, and that going uncleansed will block any chance of future marriage. But in a society rife with HIV and AIDS, despite improvements, accepting means you run the risk of disease — using a condom doesn’t complete the ritual properly so people go without.
After the cleansing, the widow is traditionally inherited, whereby she marries another man (usually a brother-in-law). Yet, she still has no rights — and millions of widows across Africa are kicked out of their homes by their in-laws, robbed of their property and made vulnerable to rape.
“Why don’t women have a choice?” said Atema, now 40. “You don’t know who this person is; they could hurt or kill you. No one checks if they’re HIV-free.”
While issues like female genital mutilation (FGM) often hit headlines, widow abuse is a huge, largely overlooked, problem. According to the Loomba Foundation’s 2015 Report, there are more than 258 million widows worldwide, and nearly 10 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.