Rites infringing on rights: How widowhood rites harm women
When a man dies in Ghana, it marks a period not just of mourning, but also a season for his widow to prove that she loved him, was faithful to him, and that have no hand in his death. Her community expects her to prove this in a series of traditional rites. Among the Akans, the largest tribe in Ghana, these rites are known as “kunaye.” The Dagaabas in the Northern Region, the Ewes in the Volta Region, and the Gas in the Greater Accra regions all have similar rites. The rites start on the day the man dies and last until his burial. In some cases, the rites can last up to a year.
Common practices include levirate marriage where the widow is expected to marry her brother-in-law, dispossession, and cleansing rituals to prove that the widow was not involved in her husband’s death. In one such rite, the widow is led to a rubbish dump at the outskirts of the village, where she is subjected to ritual bathing. Her husband’s kinsmen will pour hot and cold water on her, and if the hot water scalds her, it is taken to mean that she was unfaithful to her husband. After this, her head is shaved, and she is expected to wear black clothes for a year as a sign of mourning.
The rites prescribe what the widow can or cannot do. The restrictions range from prescribing what she can eat, who she can talk to, what she can wear, and even whether she can work. These rites are supposed to sever marital ties between the widow and her dead husband and to prepare her to fend for herself and her children. Others such as restrictions on movements and day-to-day activities like cooking and farming are said to protect her from harm during the mourning period.
While these age-old traditions are accepted as the norm, widows have different views. Cecilia Azu, a 64-year-old market trader whose husband died in November 2022, told GNA that she was forbidden from selling her wares until the end of February 2023, after the burial of her husband. “I can’t go to the market and my goods are locked up in the shop. Meanwhile, my loan interest keeps piling up,” she said, adding that while the death of her husband is painful, she doesn’t see why her economic activity should be curtailed for prolonged periods, yet, she has a loan to repay.
Some in-laws hide behind cleansing rituals to evict widows from their matrimonial homes and dispose them of their matrimonial property. This happened to Ada, a 46-year-old widow whose husband died six years ago. The in-laws ejected her from her home and took over the cassava farm she tilled with her husband. They told her it was a family land and as such she could not lay claim to it, because she was a “stranger.”
To have her peace of mind, Ada left behind everything she had toiled for during her 18-year marriage. According to the World Bank, one in 10 African women is either widowed or divorced, and women often lose their rights once the marriage ends. “In much of Africa, marriage is the sole basis for women’s access to social and economic rights and these are lost upon divorce or widowhood,” observed a 2018 report by the World Bank.
While the Intestate Succession Act, commonly referred to as the PNDC Law 111, was introduced in 1985 to protect the property rights of women whose husbands died without a will, widows like Ada do not benefit from its provisions. This, according to legal practitioner Charles Obeng, is because many women are ignorant of the law and the lengthy and bureaucratic succession processes involved are off putting. “The PNDC Law 111 addresses this issue of wives in particular, and children, suffering all manner of violations after the death of their husbands, but the reality is that it’s a law which must be applied through processes and procedure, so often victims are unable to take advantage of this law,” he said.
Mr Obeng told GNA that while Ghana’s constitution recognises customary laws, the constitution also mandates the chieftaincy institution to eliminate harmful traditional rites that infringe on human rights and dignity. Previous research suggested that cultural perceptions that women do not need property meant that the law had not had the intended effects. The study observed that there’s usually, “significant social pressure from their families and communities not to seek formal legal recourse.”
According to Achaa Ntiamoah, a counsellor and women’s rights activist, this pressure includes accusing women who resist widowhood rites or fight for their property rights of killing their husbands through witchcraft. Tired of harmful practices that ride on culture and tradition, women such as Mrs Matilda Amissah-Arthur, the widow of Ghana’s former Vice President, Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur, have been campaigning against the harmful rites. While Mrs Amissah-Arthur was expected to go through widowhood rites, when her husband died, she felt that the burden and pain of the loss of a spouse especially a husband was too much for any other traditional demand to be added. She now campaigns against harmful rites, saying that discriminatory practices afflict pain on grieving women and make no sense in modern society.
“In as much as we appreciate customs and traditions, we must understand that every practice that infringes on the widow’s rights or freedoms does nothing but add to the pain of her loss.” Mrs Juliana Abbey-Quaye, the Eastern Regional Director of the Department of Women under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, told GNA that the harmful practices do not only violate the dignity and freedom of widows, but they also have economic, health, and psychological implications.
Mrs Abbey-Quaye added that though the rites have persisted, educating communities and empowering vulnerable women can help get rid of the practices. “We need to empower people to understand the harm in the rites and empower them with the capabilities to resist such practices,” she said, adding that the Department of Women does outreach programmes to educate communities and their leaders on the rights of widows, the law and how to approach age-old rites to suit modern times.
A comparative study of widowhood rites among the Dagaaba and the Ewe people of Ghana recommended public awareness campaigns on the rights of widows. The study recommended seminars, workshops, symposia, and media as tools to address the legal, religious, cultural, and socio-economic aspects that restrict widows and the community.
Beyond educating communities, the World Bank suggests implementing policies that address systemic inequalities that sustain the harmful practices against widows. Some of these policies include enhancing women’s access to credit, equal ownership, and inheritance rights and securing customary marriages through legal documentation. Other recommended measures include financial safety nets for widows and access to shelters.[This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP (in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) through the support of the Ford Foundation]
BY BERTHA BADU-AGYEI