By: Natalie Czarnota
Widows are often thought of as elderly women, but many women are widowed at young ages too. One in 10 African women over 15 years of age are widows. This number is significant because when a woman’s husband dies, she faces danger in many African communities. Widows face discriminatory and harmful treatment perpetrated by the community. Many of the practices involving widows are classified as inhuman, humiliating and degrading.
One of these practices includes widows being forced to have unprotected “cleansing” sex with the husband’s brother, another male relative or with a professional village cleanser. This practice is rape, as there is no consent, and it has been linked to the increased spread of HIV/AIDS. Other inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment of widows include being forced into confinement for days or even months without being allowed to bathe or change clothes, being forced to drink the water used to wash the body of the corpse and sleep next to the body of the corpse for days. All of these practices cause both mental and physical harm to the widows.
Often women are forced off their lands, forced to remarry their husband’s male relatives or even have their children taken away from them. All the discriminatory treatment constitutes as inhuman, humiliating and degrading. Women are treated as if they were the property of their husbands, rather than equals to their husbands. Instead of being treated as an equal human being with equal property-owning rights, widows are treated as property themselves.
Under Article 20(a) of the Maputo Protocol, States are obligated to take appropriate legal measures to ensure that widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment.
But this treatment is also prohibited under various other legal instruments- both regional and international. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is often linked with torture, which is one of the only human rights universally agree upon as part of customary law. This sort of treatment is prohibited under Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), further in Resolution 61 of the ACHPR, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and extensively in the Convention Against Torture (which is ratified by all African States besides Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Angola).
So while States are already obligated to protect against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under other treaties, Article 20(a) of the Maputo Protocol acts as a supplement for protecting widows specifically. It offers guidance in implementing protection by ensuring States Parties focus on protecting the groups most vulnerable (widows, in this case) to this particular human rights violation.
As with many other human right legal protections, the main problem is effective implementation. While countries, where the “cleansing” sex and other harmful treatment occurs have ratified the Maputo Protocol, Article 20(a) is not being effectively implemented, since these practices continue.
This is why it is crucial that beyond ratifying the Maputo Protocol, States Parties must be held accountable in proactively implementing its provisions. One of the best ways to implement Article 20(a) is through educating the communities where the inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment of widows occurs.
Many of the practices are linked to witchcraft. For example, a widow is forced to drink the water used to wash her husband's corpse to prove that she did not kill him. Or, a widow is forced to have unprotected sex following her husband’s death is to supposedly rid of the “impurities” left by her husband. Both of these practices are not only emotionally and mentally harmful to widows but also risk spreading of disease. If communities were educated about these truths, it would be much easier to eradicate these practices. It may be the only way these practices could be eradicated. To effectively implement the obligation to protect widows from inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment, States Parties should support programs educating communities about widows’ rights and the harmful nature of many widow practices.
Additionally, many of the widows aren’t aware of their rights and their right to seek justice or help. In these cases, even if State Parties protects widows against inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment, it’s useless if widows are unaware of it. For example, governments may have inheritance laws providing widows with legal rights to land and property, yet the widows may not be aware of these rights. To remedy this, State Parties should take initiatives to provide outreach services informing communities of widows’ rights.
And lastly, States Parties must protect all widows, as sometimes the most vulnerable may be left out. For example, Côte D’Ivoire is currently in the process of passing a marriage reform that would treat women as equals to their husbands in regards to property rights. However, this new law will not extend to customary and unregistered religious marriages. The women in these marriages will still be subjected to the inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment of being forced from their homes upon their husbands’ deaths and treated as property themselves. States Parties must, therefore, be aware of this in drafting legislation and take into account these groups of women, making amendments to protect them as well.