After almost three years of limited international travel, I had the privilege of traveling with colleagues to Kenya to visit with partners in March. I left with familiar feelings of hope, tremendous awe, and deep gratitude for the incredible visionary changemakers that the Imago Dei Fund is so fortunate to be able to support and learn from. As I often do after a trip I reflect on my key learnings and the linkages to other work we support and that I care deeply about around gender and norms change. On this particular trip, I was deeply affected by a visit with Nyannam, an organization founded and led by Jackie Odhiambo, that works with widows in rural Kenya. Widows in many places suffer from a very deep stigma and scorn and are often blamed and shamed for their husband’s death.
Before I left on my trip, I had started conceptualizing an essay that I was calling “Destigmatizing Eve.” It was an attempt to capture my thinking about how so much of the web of gender-based oppression that plagues our planet stems from the story of Eve and the ancient stigma that functions like a curse or a taboo rooted in millennia-old beliefs and myths that still live on in our collective consciousness. As I was listening to Jackie and her team share their own personal stories as well as what they have heard from the widowed women they serve, I literally could feel in their stories the lingering hold of this ancient man-made curse but also the light and love of awareness exposing and dispelling it. Jackie is now collaborating with me on a longer paper on this topic that uses her work at a case study. What touched me most about our day with Nyanam is the simplicity and humanity of their main “intervention”: deep listening. It is at the core of all they do and is the magic of their work. ~ Emily Nielsen Jones
Nyanam started in 2017 and grew out of an experience I had while working on a water project that led me to connect the dots between things I had experienced or witnessed growing up and what I was seeing in development work. Widows were being left behind in community projects. Their voices were unheard and often treated with neglect and disrespect due to social and cultural stigmas. Nyanam was started to change that. We work in Kisumu Kenya, where I grew up and where almost everyone on the Nyanam team is from, and like me most have a direct link to widows. In my case, I was raised by a team of widows: my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother. So I know the stigma the women we serve experience. Let me share a bit of context.
In Kenya, as in much of Africa and Asia, 1 in 3 widowed women experience societal stigma that devalues their humanity and creates social, economic and health losses in the lives of widows. Nearly half of the widows are young, aged below 60 years. Widowhood is also a gendered social identity. While widowed men often remarry within 2 years of the death of their spouse, women with deceased husbands remain widowed for a long time or forever. Cultural practices such as leviratic marriage require widows to remarry within the community of the deceased husband, constraining remarriage options. The culture is also patrilineal with children belonging to the family of the husband, making official remarriage a threat to mother-child relationships. Widows also worry that their children with the deceased husband might not be fully accepted in a new marriage. Some widows also discover new individual freedoms that they never experienced in marriage, making them prefer singlehood. As a result, for every one widower, there are at least eight widows in the country.
Structural stigma, expressed through culture, religious traditions and laws favor men over women during widowhood. Female widowhood can be seen as a root cause of health and wealth inequalities women experience in widowhood. When a husband dies, widows lose more than a husband. For example, they lose their social status and become inferior, they lose social relationships they had when their husband lived, and they also lose economic resources they enjoyed in their marriage. At a challenging time in a woman’s life when she can use as much support as can be offered, the contrary becomes true.
Like Emily, I see the link to the story of Eve. “Eve” is blamed for sin hence death entering the world. When a husband dies, it is common for the widow to be blamed for his death, regardless of the cause of death. Labeled ‘husband killer’, the widow is now believed to acquire a spiritual impurity (the shadow of death) that threatens the survival of her children and the wellbeing of her community. She becomes a ‘witch’, a ‘bad omen’, held responsible for all misfortunes that befall her family and community, and excluded from all forms of social events to keep ‘bad luck’ and death at bay. This discrimination remains unless she is purified through a sexual cleansing ritual, or performs whatever cleansing ritual her family demands.
Despite progress in laws that promote gender equality in Kenya, property laws applicable to women during widowhood uphold male dominance, including economic dominance, plunging widows into more poverty. Often, widowhood means the loss of a breadwinner and the expansion of a woman’s financial responsibilities. This situation is most desperate for women whose husbands prohibited their participation in the labor force, demanding they remain housewives as the husbands provide. The desperation deepens when the same widows suffer property disinheritance, with their land, animals and household effects grabbed by their in-laws who cling to patrilineal inheritance and see the widows as responsible for the death of their son thus undeserving of their son’s or family wealth. Although Kenya’s constitution protects women’s rights to inheritance, the law does not guarantee a widow’s inheritance rights. Widows have user and not ownership rights of their matrimonial property. If widows remarry outside their deceased husband’s home, they lose all rights to the matrimonial property. On the other hand, widowers have full ownership rights over matrimonial property. Such feminized poverty in widowhood contributes to the view of widows as ‘social burdens’ and ‘beggars’ to be avoided in the community.
The social and economic discrimination of widows harms their health and wellbeing. The stigmatization entrenches loneliness that started with the loss of a husband, creating a significant toll on widows’ mental, physical, social and economic health. The economic deprivation pushes widows to harmful ways of earning a living such as sex work and transactional sex. Across Africa, widows have the highest HIV prevalence among women, estimated at 32% among widows aged below 50 years in Kenya. Many of the widows internalize the structural stigma and develop feelings of inferiority, viewing themselves as “unable”, “empty”, “helpless”, “hopeless”, “outcasts”, “unworthy” and “social burdens”. They remain silent or comply with oppressive social imposition due to fear of further disdain or violence.
Our work at Nyanam starts with listening. Even though most of our team grew up in widowed families, we still knew we had a lot to learn because stigma has a shaming and silencing effect: no one who is stigmatized wants to further stigmatize and ostracize themselves by talking about their plight. So we start our work by creating safe havens to listen to women who have been widowed and hear their stories. We have heard stories of widows they say they have never shared with anyone before. After building this foundation of trust, we create Leadership Circles for widows to support one another in spiritual, economic, and social empowerment. We view and treat widows as leaders, which they are as their household heads. For example, one of our core programs is sustainable agriculture to ensure widows have enough nutritious food on their tables, with surplus to sell in the markets. This month, we trained 18 new widow lead farmers from all the nine new leadership circles that joined Nyanam in 2023 on sustainable agriculture. The training covered planting, harvesting, value addition and organic manure development. Importantly, this training was fully led by five other widows we had trained on the same program in the previous year. We are excited that the 18 trained widows will share their agriculture knowledge and skills with another 200 widows in their nine leadership circles. We are happy to continue this community transformation led by widows.
We will continue to do our work with widows and amplify their voices as we all collectively work to undo the stigma around widowhood and celebrate the strength of all widows.