Kenya's widows: leading the fight for dignity

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Roseline Orwa

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

In parts of Kenya, particularly rural areas, for women who lose their husbands socio-economic inclusion remains a struggle. In some communities, widows are considered impure and assumed to carry an omen of death, and in need of being sexually “cleansed” to remove the omen. Stigmatisation and ostrascisation of these women, coupled with a cultural silence on widowhood, consequently remain forgotten components in Kenya’s struggle for gender equality.

The practices of widow cleansing, as well as widow inheritance, pose a serious risk of spreading HIV/AIDS to individuals and among the wider community. Further, women’s right to freedom from sexual gender-based violence is violated, in which the place of ‘choice’ is completely forgotten.

According to these traditions, widows are expected to engage in sexual intercourse with a “cleanser’” without the use of protection, to remove the impurity ascribed after her husband’s death. Widows are also inherited for the purpose of fulfilling cultural obligations, where couples, including widows, are expected to engage in sex preceding specific activities, such as building homes, funerals, weddings, agricultural practices and other significant cultural and social events. Widows “inherited” for the purpose of fulfilling these obligations have a higher prevalence of HIV than those who remain un-inherited or are inherited for the purpose of companionship. According to a JIAs report, there is a need for additional women-centred HIV prevention options.

Read Roseline’s post in full on the Africa@LSE blog


Roseline Orwa is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics, and founder of the Rona Foundation. She tweets at @roselineorwa

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo: Victor Grigas CC-BY-SA-3.0