Cameroon Takes Strides to Empower Widows, Eliminate Traditional Rituals

Posted on 11 August 2011


by Courtesy of CAMAUW
“The rites are so inhumane, such that one would not want her daughter to marry into a tribe with such customs.”
– Margeret Tarla, widow

by Irene Zih Fon 08/11/2011

by Courtesy of CAMAUW

DOUALA, CAMEROON – Margeret Tarla, a mother of four, says her father married her off to his friend before she turned 16. She became the second of the man’s five wives.

Tarla, who lives in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city and the capital of Littoral province, became a widow almost a year ago. She says that after her husband died, she and the other wives were forced to undergo inhumane traditional widowhood rites in the husband’s village.

The wives had to sit on dried plantain leaves for three days and could only eat food served on leaves by a virgin. After three days on the floor, they had to bathe with a concoction of water and other substances, which, according to their husband’s tribe, cleansed them from the bad luck accrued by their intimate relations with their husband. They also had to shave their heads, arms and private parts.

“We go to the stream with a basket,” Tarla says, describing another ritual. “And, after a bath, any widow who does not pass out urine is considered to have a hand in her husband’s death!”

On their way back from the stream, they had to cut down bamboo sticks to symbolize the food they were expected to bring home with them. They were not allowed to look behind them.

“The next day, we move round the market square in line, according to our position in the polygamous marriage,” she says.

Widows here also have to wear a black or white sackcloth for the traditional year of mourning, but Tarla says this is not considered as important as the other rites they went through.

Tarla says the rites were inhumane.

“The rites are so inhumane, such that one would not want her daughter to marry into a tribe with such customs,” she says.

Tarla says her husband’s property caused further strife. She says that some of the wives are currently in court fighting for control of his property. But she says she didn’t get involved in order to ensure the safety of her children.

Widows say that inhumane rituals and property disputes with in-laws compound their grieving over dead husbands. Other widows say they haven’t faced problems with their in-laws, but that it’s still hard to live and raise children on their own. The government commemorated the first International Widows’ Day recently with a range of initiatives, and numerous nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are also working to ensure widows the rights they deserve. Meanwhile, in-laws insist on the importance of widowhood rites.

There are about 245 million widows worldwide, Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, said on International Widows’ Day, commemorated for the first time in June. There are an estimated 500,000 widows in Cameroon, with the number varying as more data is collected, Marie-Thérèse Abena Ondoa, national minister of women’s empowerment and the family, said on the day.

The activities that constitute widowhood rituals are mostly universal across Cameroon, but they vary slightly by tribe.

Widows say they face various problems after their husbands die, from inhumane traditional rites to inheritance squabbles. They say they also struggle to move on without their husbands and to become sole providers for their children.

One widow, Felicite Zedong, a mother of two who also lives in Douala, says her late husband’s family visited her just after the burial to commence the traditional rites.

“They asked me to take off my clothes so they could start the traditional rites,” she says. “I told them we are Christians and we would not succumb to those rites, but would rather see a priest for special prayers.”

Zedong says her in-laws threatened her that if any ill luck befell her family, they would not be there to console her. She says she replied that she would not be shaken by their threats, because she had given her life to Jesus Christ.

“They left, and none of them has ever visited my family since then – not even my husband’s sister, who was closest to us,” she says. “She stayed away and spread rumors that I am the one who killed my husband.”

Zedong says her in-laws also attacked her regarding her husband’s wealth. She told them she didn’t even have money to plan her deceased husband’s funeral.

She eventually found out that while her husband was sick, he had asked his employer to ensure that all his benefits were paid into his account. She says her in-laws accused her of selfishly blocking all her husband’s money. But Zedong says she didn’t receive access to his bank account until later.

“What saved my situation was the fact that in all official documents, my husband had written ‘Mr. and Mrs.,’” she says. “That way, we both had legal rights to whatever possession we shared. So, only my signature was needed to complete my authorization to my husband’s money.”

But not all widows run into the challenges that Tarla and Zedong describe.

Another widow, Jackeline Fekam, says that her in-laws treated her well after her husband’s death.

“In terms of widowhood suffering, I really give thanks to God,” she says. “My in-laws took care of my every need. My father-in-law specified that everything that needed to be done should happen within the next five minutes, especially as I am a mother of twins.”

Designated women in the husbands’ families or villages are in charge of performing the widowhood rites. But Fekam says her father-in-law paid these women off so that she didn’t have to participate in them.

“That way, by the end of the day after the burial, I was able to exchange handshake with anybody and sit anywhere I wished,” she says. “It only suffices to know how much the women want because in all those issues it’s just a question of money!”

After three days in her late husband’s village, Fekam and her children returned to their home in Douala to prepare for the next academic year.

For Fekam, the major challenge as a widow has been solitude.

“After my husband died, the main problem I had was that of separation – the fact that he was no longer there, that we could no longer share things and bring up the children together,” she says.

She says it seems that local people stay away from widows thanks to a common belief that associating with widows is bad luck and could cause other women to lose their husbands, too. But Fekam, a teacher, says that interacting with her colleagues and students helps to reduce her loneliness.

The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family organized the first national commemoration of International Widows’ Day in Cameroon.

Ondoa announced capacity-building sessions for widows at empowerment centers and promised the formation of an interministerial committee to help secure financial aid for projects carried out by widows and widows’ associations. Ondoa also promised that 100 children of widows living under the poverty line would receive holiday jobs from June to August during their time off from school as well as didactic materials for the next academic year.

The ministry also encourages widows to organize themselves into a network so they can receive assistance more effectively. Within the network, officials empower widows to approach the government with their problems. This way, the government can help women work with specific institutions to develop solutions.

For instance, officials at the ministry’s Littoral delegation bring the widows’ problems to the civil society authorities to sensitize them to the women’s issues.

“Once they learn a woman is a widow, they become insensitive to her plight and, consequently, problems that can be solved in one day takes six months,” says Louise Florence Tamssar, an official at the delegation. “There are situations like that because the person knows that nobody can come to talk for the widow.”

Tamssar says that there are various structures in the country that are available to assist widows in receiving their rights, but specific policies haven’t been actively implemented.

“There are already laws in this country,” Tamssar says. “We need to only remind those in responsibility to put those laws into action. That is the role of the ministry. We don’t become lawyers, but we go to lawyers and tell them: ‘This is a situation. What can we do?’”

Through the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family and the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms in Cameroon, the government plans to use information gathered about widows’ problems as well as their recommendations for solutions in order to create innovative policies to protect them.

Priso Nkongue Leon Marcel, senior officer at the government-created National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms in the Littoral region, says that a widow is, first and foremost, a human being, so she has all the civil, political, economic and socio-cultural rights accorded to every person.

“A widow has the right to her physical integrity because when a woman loses her husband in our African customs in general, we have some rites, which, frankly speaking, affect the physical integrity of a woman,” he says. “So if a widow complains that a certain customary or traditional rite is barbaric and affects her physical integrity, the traditional authorities or groups concerned should be able to respect that.”

He says that widows also have the right to housing, which should apply in cases where a widow’s in-laws try to claim her husband’s house after he dies. He says a widow also has the right to refuse to marry her deceased husband’s brother, which some families say must happen because they paid the widows’ bride price.

Marcel also recommends two solutions for property disputes: that husbands should leave a will, or, even when there isn’t a will, there should be a provision that entitles the widow to inherit her husband’s property.

NGOs here are also working for widows’ rights.

According to the Committee for the Assistance of Needy Women of Cameroon, an NGO here, widows’ suffering is not in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Cameroon has ratified.

In his International Widows’ Day speech, Ki-moon said all widows deserved protection under this U.N. conventionThe Cameroon Association of Female Jurists, another NGO, aims to educate widows about their rights and drills them on how to go about reclaiming whatever their deceased husbands leave them. Patricia Njanjo, of the association’s Littoral chapter, says they have many files on record of widows they are guiding through the judicial procedure to secure their possessions.

The Association of Widows in Distress, another NGO, aims to bring widows together and to look into their problems, especially for underprivileged widows whose husbands left them many children yet little wealth. The organization opened a new office in Littoral on International Widows’ Day to help educate widows here on their rights.

Chantal Ngoassa, founding president of the association, says that some men seem to find pleasure in seeing widows maltreated, so they don’t leave wills to protect them.

“Our husbands do not help us much because in a man’s life there should be a will,” she says. “They are sometimes the origin of all such problems we encounter with our in-laws.”

Musa Fonyuy, a husband and father, says that husbands do write wills, but usually not for the unexpected.

“Generally, most people tend not to think of writing a will, except when they’re old or when suffering from a severe illness,” Fonyuy says.

He says that when husbands do write wills, it is a highly individual task deciding what to leave whom. But he says they generally divvy up their property among family members, including the wife, and should come to a consensus with the wife about any shared property. He says husbands also account for the children’s welfare and education if they were well-behaved.

“Husbands often tend not to leave any property for children who are recalcitrant,” he says.

She says the International Widows’ Day in Cameroon gave the association members a chance to carry out a door-to-door sensitization campaign and meet with public authorities, traditional and religious leaders and civil society. Ngoassa says that traditional rulers have started sensitizing men about the disposition they should take toward their wives, and whenever a woman loses her husband, they plan to visit the family and ask the in-laws not to make any demands of her.

“Things are changing because widows are now better informed, and, therefore, they can put some barriers,” Ngoassa says.

But she says there are still challenges when it comes to in-laws.

“It is an honor for a widow to respect the tradition of her husband, so the problem is not the tradition, but the wickedness of some mother in-laws,” Ngoassa says.

Madeleine Liban, a mother-in-law, disagrees. She says widowhood rites are a tradition.

“Widow rites are important,” she says. “It is not something to be neglected.”

Liban says there are natural consequences if the rites are not well-performed, such as deafness.

“If one is a widow and widowhood rites are not performed on her, she can even become deaf!” she says.

Posted in: Cameroon, Rituals, Widows