• Only 5 per cent of women in Kenya own land jointly with men, and many are unaware of their husband's investments.
• To make matters worse, greedy in-laws disown widows. To cope with the adversity, many are learning new skills and lobbying for funding, protection.
For many women in Kenya, losing a husband is not just a personal tragedy. It is the beginning of a nightmare orchestrated by the same relatives they sang and danced with at their wedding.
The dust has barely settled on their husband's grave when the new widows find themselves suffering social discrimination, segregation and economic hardship at the hands of their in-laws, informally referred to as "co-relas".
During the commemoration of International Widows' Day at the University of Nairobi last month, widows came out to express their grievances at the harsh treatment they are subjected to when their husbands die.
They further lamented about the denial of access to their spouses' assets. Most of them are taken over by their in-laws, while some lay unidentified at the Unclaimed Assets Authority, with the widows unaware of their existence or how to acquire them.
Mary* (not her real name), a mother of two from Tharaka Nithi, told the Star her relatives took away land and property belonging to her after her husband's burial.
She was six months pregnant when her husband died in 2014, and before that had been friends with her in-laws before his demise.
"They would sometimes call me instead of him when they needed help and after helping them, I would inform my husband that so and so had called," she said.
However, after his demise, their tune changed.
"The enmity began after I declined to give my brother-in-law the burial permit," an emotional Mary said. "He had said he wanted to take it to the chief but I told him if the chief wanted it, I would take it myself."
After the burial, they kicked her out of the home she had built with him and took over land that she had been farming on, saying it was theirs.
The mistreatment began in the family and soon moved to the rest of the village, all because they wanted the assets my late husband hadMary*, a widow
DIED WITHOUT WILL
Her late father-in-law had not left a will behind to determine how many shares of his land each sibling would get.
"They left me with a Sh500,000 loan that we had taken to build the house and finance part of my education," she said.
Mary moved to court but, after numerous court dates, gave up because the justice system was too slow. She has since moved to Nairobi, where she stays with her two children, struggling to make ends meet.
Nancy, on the other hand, lost her husband 19 years ago, and it seemed as though all hope was lost.
"He fell ill for two and a half years and during that time, I faced a lot of challenges because I had children in school and was breastfeeding another one," she said.
When he died, members of his family treated her with hate and disdain.
"The mistreatment began in the family and soon moved to the rest of the village, all because they wanted the assets my late husband had," she said.
"They treated me like I was not a human being and hurled insults at me, but I am glad because God saw me through."
Nancy is currently an advocate for widows, and she encourages them to keep the hope and take advantage of the opportunities the government is offering to them.
Twenty-seven years after her husband died, Cynthia* is still struggling to make ends meet, while still facing discrimination.
Cynthia, who is handicapped, has struggled to sustain her family through hawking in the streets of Nairobi. Fellow hawkers try to take advantage of her and accuse her of vile acts to destroy her business.
"They accuse me of having people killed and send authorities to harass me because they want me to close shop," she said. "They have never produced any evidence and they just spread the rumours to destroy my business."
She attended the event in the hope the government would help her because she did not know where else to turn.
A land dispute saw her brother arrested and jailed in Mombasa 17 years ago. However, Cynthia says he was framed.
"I hope the government can help my brother be set free from prison because they put him there so they could take the land," she said.
Most of the issues raised are part of the amendments that Parliament is expected to enact in the Matrimonial Act, the Succession Act, and the Marriage ActGender Affairs CS Margaret Kobia
For Margaret Mukui, after her husband died in 2004, she was not aware of how she would access the money he had left in the bank.
Through an education campaign by the Unclaimed Assets Financial Authority, she learned the procedure she needed to complete to get the money.
"I was told to go to the chief's office with my husband's identification card and death certificate. The chief wrote a letter to the authority and they released Sh100,000 from his account to me," she said. The process took place over a 90-day period.
Speaking at the ceremony, Gender Affairs CS Margaret Kobia said as much as 90 per cent of assets left behind is those previously owned by husbands.
A possible factor is that, according to estimates, only 1 per cent of women in Kenya hold land titles in their own names, and only 5 per cent own land jointly with men.
Kobia said the government had partnered with the assets authority to assist widows to access their late spouses' assets.
The widows, through representatives, requested the government to fund their organisations to help them gain financial stability and become economically independent.
Widows for Widows Foundation chairperson Joyce Ngugi said this would help them reach more widows and equip them with skills through training. Joyce is the widow of former Gatundu South MP Joseph Ngugi.
Eunice*, a widow who hails from Congo, lost her husband to the war. "When he died, we came to Kenya because we were told it is peaceful and there is no fighting," she told the Star.
Eunice, who lives in Githurai, says she joined a support group for widows in the area, where she learned tailoring.
"We are here today because we are hoping to get some funding to enable us to buy tailoring machines," she said. "We were not aware that there was a way for us to be helped, so we are very hopeful that we will get some help."
She has been in the country for three years and received the training six months ago. However, she has been unable to use it to empower herself.
"When we get the machines, it will be easy for us to work and make money to improve our lives," she said.
Ngugi, who also chairs the National Council for Children's Services, said a widows' council should be set up to speak on behalf of widows.
"Widows should be considered a special group just like the youth are, and we could be given a council or a fund. Despite looking at us as women, we have other challenges as widows," Ngugi said.
Further, she requested the government to help ensure that certificates of death are issued to the widow or children.
"Can there be an intervention such that succession cases are quickened so widows stop dying before they receive their benefits?" Ngugi said.
The widows also requested nomination to various positions of power in the government so their voices are heard.
Globally, it is estimated that 7-16% of all adults are widows. This translates to over 245 million widows worldwide.
Kobia acknowledged that widows are still vulnerable, especially in patriarchal societies such as Kenya.
Globally, it is estimated that seven to 16 per cent of all adults are widows. This translates to over 245 million widows worldwide.
"Unfortunately, the world has not been kind to these human beings, who have suffered the misfortune of losing their husbands," Kobia said.
However, the CS said Kenya has made interventions that aim to provide some form of protection to widows.
"I am aware that through your various associations, you had proposed a Widow's Bill. This would, among other things, provide for a grace period within which a widow cannot be evicted from a property that was leased or rented," she said.
"Following consultation with the Attorney General's office, I am happy to inform you that most of the issues raised are part of the amendments that Parliament is expected
to enact in the Matrimonial Act, the Succession Act, and the Marriage Act."
She added that the Constitution explicitly safeguards the rights of widows, citing the Prevention against Domestic Violence Act (2015), the Lands Act (2012), Land Registration Regulations (2017), the Succession Act (2012) and the Widows' and Children's Pensions Act (2012).
"The rich body of laws champion women's and children's interests by outlawing and criminalising repugnant cultural practices and guaranteeing adequate living conditions to widows and their children," she said.
Nairobi woman representative Esther Passaris encouraged widows countrywide to form groups they could use to voice their grievances.
She said the government will work to enlighten more widows on the unclaimed assets so they could access assets their spouses may have left behind.
She expressed pride in the widows who came out to demand assistance from the government so they could economically empower themselves.
"Majority of the widows probably never went to school, they were dependent on their husbands. So how can we improve their education levels as well?" she said.
She said their unity is helping the government recognise they have a voice and need to be heard, and that they are also a community that needs to be assisted.
Edited by Tom Jalio