The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:
All over the world, women live longer than their partners. Some forms of violence against older women are based on cultural practices that specifically target widows, who are often regarded as insignificant without their husbands. While widows of all ages are subjected to mistreatment, older widows can be particularly vulnerable when their age lowers their status in the community and makes caring for themselves more difficult.
In many countries, including Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Ethiopia, India, Lithuania, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa and Sudan, over half of the women over age 60 are widowed. In 15 out of 16 countries listed in a 2002 report on the state of the world’s older people, between 5 percent and 25 percent of men over age 60 are widowers, whereas 35 percent to 65 percent of women over age 60 in the same countries are widowed, a huge discrepancy. The same is reflected throughout Asia: More than 50 percent of older women and only 13 percent of older men are widowed. The sati tradition in India, where women immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, dates back thousands of years. Early accounts describe tens of thousands of widow queens practicing group sati after the death of their king, while others recount individual acts of sati. Even though the custom was abolished officially in 1829, rare but reported incidents continue, and many shrines still exist to honour thousands of these widows.
There are different explanations for the motivation behind the custom, ranging from a widow’s desire to join her husband in the afterlife – since traditional Indian culture dictates that a woman without a man is incomplete – to her relatives’ desire to preserve family inheritance, as property is divided amongst male heirs after a widow has died. Recent reports suggest that not all widows who follow the tradition do so willingly: In 2002, a 65-year-old widow from Madhya Pradesh died from immolation on her husbands’ funeral pyre. Authorities suspected that the woman, who had separated from her husband, did not commit sati of her own free will because she “did not have good relations with her husband” and “the grown-up sons did not make any attempt to discourage their mother from sitting on their father’s pyre.
Today, in parts of India where popular sati shrines exist, communities may encourage widows to follow the practice, as they stand to earn money from donations by visitors to the shrines. Many people in India, however, are speaking out against the tradition. According to one activist, regardless of whether the motivation for a widow to commit sati is forced or voluntary, “no virtuosity of semantics can justify or condone such an act of nihilism. … It is totally unacceptable to distinguish between forced sati as being criminal and voluntary sati as being cultural tradition. There never was and never can be a cultural tradition that sanctifies the death of a human being.
The tradition of wife inheritance in parts of Africa is rationalized by some as being essential to keeping widows integrated in their communities. In many countries, including Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, a widow becomes the property of another man from her village, usually a brother or close male relative of her late husband. It has been argued that the custom benefits widows by offering them security, but because the practice is obligatory, it should be considered a form of gender-based discrimination that results in sexual abuse.
A deadly implication of wife inheritance is the degree to which the custom can transmit HIV. A widow who is HIV-negative faces the risk of contracting the virus from the man who inherits her. In other cases, a widow who has contracted HIV from her late husband – who may have died from an AIDS-related illness – will transmit the disease to her inheritor when she is forced to have sex with him. In the context of polygynous practices, this can set off a chain of events in which the man transmits the virus to his other wives, who may in turn infect others if they are widowed and inherited, and so on.
Notably, in Western Kenya, the tradition of wife inheritance is practiced by a number of communities – which not coincidentally also have the highest rate of HIV infection in the country. In 2000, the HIV-prevalence rate in Nyanza province, for example, was 22 percent, compared to the national HIV-infection rate, which was 13 percent. Despite the risks, the tradition of wife inheritance continues because most widows have no alternative. If they refuse, they risk rejection by their communities.
Widow cleansing is another custom that denies women their basic rights and increases their risk of HIV infection. According to the practice, a woman is required to have sex with a village cleanser after her husband dies in order to be reaccepted into her community. The tradition exists in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria, among other countries. Widow cleansing “dates back centuries and is rooted in the belief that a woman is haunted by spirits after her husband dies. She is also thought to be unholy and “disturbed” if she is unarried and abstains from sex.” Another traditional belief holds that a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. In many instances a widow must undergo the ritual before she can be inherited.
A widow cleanser in Malawi explained that the “tradition dictates that he sleep with the widow, then with each of his own wives, and then again with the widow, all in one night.” He admitted that he never uses condoms and acknowledged that he may be infecting hundreds of women, or even himself. A Kenyan widow cleanser expressed equal disregard for condom use. He said that the widows “wouldn’t really be cleanses if the condom was there.”
Even women who are aware of the risk of HIV infection may submit to cleansing rituals because of community pressure. One woman from Malawi described her feelings of resignation and shame: “I was hiding my private parts. … You want to have a liking for a man to have sex, not to have someone force you. But I had no choice, knowing the whole village was against me.”
Another Malawian woman, Paulina Bubala, who is now the leader of a community group for people living with HIV/AIDS, first participated in an alternative rite but was ultimately forced to undergo a widow-cleansing ritual. For the first step of the cleansing rite, Paulina and her co-wife “covered themselves in mud for three days. Then they each bathed, stripped naked with their dead husband’s nephew and rubbed their bodies against his. Weeks later, the village headman told them this cleansing ritual would not suffice. Even the stools they sat on would be considered unclean, he warned, unless they had sex with the nephew. “We felt humiliated,” she said, “but there was nothing we could do to resist, because we wanted to be clean in the land of the headman.”
Witchcraft accusations also result in violence against older women in some African countries. In Tanzania, an estimated 500 older women are murdered each year because of witchcraft claims. In Mozambique, more than 90 older women were victims of violence in one month, the majority a result of witchcraft allegations. When communities cannot find logical explanations for events, “such as a death or crop failure,” they may accuse older women in their village of witchcraft.
Such accusations might be used to justify driving an older woman from her home, stealing her possessions or killing her for her property. Ntombama Mlalazi, a 62-year-old widow, was accused of being a witch in her village in Zimbabwe and ordered to submit to an exorcism by her local chief. “People were dying, and tsikamutanda [witch hunters] said I was responsible. They made me crouch over a bucket with boiling water and covered me with a blanket. When I cried out the the steam was hurting me I could hear the tsikamutanda saying the demon was leaving me.”