The Shocking Indignities Widows Face

In Ghana, a widow must have sex with a stranger to “purify” herself after her husband’s deaths. In Nepal, widows are believed to be witches. Shannon Donnelly talks to Cherie Blair on the new movement for international widows’ rights.

06.26.10 7:11 PM ET

Imagine waking up one morning to find you’ve lost not only your husband, but also your home, your ability to provide for your children, and your own dignity. You may have to partake in a “cleansing ritual” that includes having unprotected sex with strange men. You might be hunted down and beaten, or accused of witchcraft.

For thousands of women around the world, these nightmares become reality when their husband dies.

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Widows from Rwanda, Nairobi, and India

“In societies where women have difficulty being taken as equals to men, a widow will often lose her value from when she was a wife,” said Cherie Blair, human-rights activist, president of The Loomba Foundation, and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “If she loses that man’s protection, she returns to being of little or no value.”

Blair recalls meeting with a group of lawyers doing pro bono work in Nigeria, helping men who were dying of AIDS to write wills. “By doing that, the widows would then have a recognized right to the property in the will,” she told The Daily Beast. “The laws were there, but the people were too poor to assert their rights, so the pro bono work helped with that.”

Raising public awareness is also key. The Loomba Foundation, which launched in 1998 with the aim of helping widows in developing countries, released a study last week called “Invisible Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows Around the World.” The study was presented at the United Nations on June 23, a day the Loomba Foundation hopes the U.N. will declare International Widows Day.

Here are five shocking ways in which widows are exploited, abused, and discriminated against around the world:

Ghana: Widows subjected to brutal cleansing rituals, which can include sex with strangers

For widows who are members of certain ethnic groups in Ghana, such as the Ashanti, the days following a husband’s death are taken up with elaborate cleansing rituals meant to rid the widow of the spirit of the deceased. According to a study prepared for the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., activities range from bathing in cold water, sitting naked on reed mats, ritual scarring, head shaving, and even having sex with a designated individual. That man can be a brother-in-law or even the “first stranger met on the road.”

These practices continue despite a 1989 amendment to Ghana’s penal code, which criminalized acts of brutality against widows. “You can see the deep-seated tribal, cultural customs which don’t really fit in to the 21st century,” Blair says. “These practices belong to a society where we didn’t understand so much about medicine and why people die.”

Nepal: Widows hunted as witches

Once she becomes a widow, a Nepalese woman may be subject to the ingrained belief that she has become a bokshi, or witch, and is now imbued with dark powers. She faces discrimination ranging from suspicious glances from neighbors to violent beatings. So widespread is the discrimination against widows that the government of Nepal proposed offering incentive payments to single men who married widows and helped re-integrate them into society. According to the Loomba report, many traditional women marched “through Kathmandu with banners declaring, ‘We don’t want government dowries’ and ‘Don’t put a price on your mother.’” Nepal’s supreme court eventually blocked the proposal.

Afghanistan: Widows turned out onto the street

Due to the war in Afghanistan, there are more than 2 million widows in a country of just 26.6 million people. Afghan widows are often displaced from their homes by inlaws and forced to turn to begging to provide for themselves and their children.

Bangladesh: Children of widows forced to drop out of school

When a woman in Bangladesh finds herself widowed, she often has to turn to her children for support—if she’s lucky enough to have any. According to the Loomba report, “Impoverishment and vulnerability of widows… appear to be the single greatest motivational force for women’s oft-stated preference of having a son.” This means that a woman faces pressure to have a large family from the outset of her marriage, in order to ensure her own survival should she outlive her husband. And should she become a widow while her children are relatively young, she may make the heartbreaking decision to pull her children out of school in order for them to start working to support the family.  The cycle of poverty and poor education continues. “When the world says we need to do more to attack poverty, widows are a part of that,” Blair explained.

Kenya: Widows lose their home when they lose their husband, forced to have “cleansing” sex

As if the shock of losing a spouse was not devastating enough, many Kenyan widows also face losing their homes, livestock, and livelihoods. A study on violations of women’s property rights in Kenya conducted by Human Rights Watch found that “[m]any widows in Kenya are excluded from inheriting from their husbands. When men die, widows’ inlaws often evict them from their lands and homes and take other property, such as livestock and household goods.” She may, however, be allowed to remain in her home if she assents to being “inherited” by one of her dead husband’s male relatives. As in Ghana, she must also partake in a ritual cleaning, “which involves sex with a social outcast, usually without a condom,” a tradition that has helped HIV/AIDS maintain a devastating foothold in the region.

Take Action: If you’d like to join the fight for widows’ rights around the world, consider donating to the Loomba Foundation, Widows’ Right International, or the Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association.

Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.