IMMEDIATELY HUSBAND DIES

Greedy in-laws drive widows to poverty, wife inheritance

Exclusion from burial and raids to seize title deeds spell greed of relatives

In Summary

• In Nyanza, Western, families only give legitimacy to women owning property when the husband is alive

• Courts are too slow to stop confiscations, so most women give up once victimised

Betty Okero of CSO-Network, Kisumu, speaks to the Star
Betty Okero of CSO-Network, Kisumu, speaks to the Star
Image: MALEMBA MKONGO

At a glance, the lakeside city of Kisumu is all glamorous, and its refreshing environment will get you into holiday mood.

But behind the glamour and beauty of this third-largest city in Kenya are the pain, suffering and anguish of widows.

Roseline Auma, 32, had been married to her husband for close to 15 years, and they were blessed with three children.

However, the moment her husband, Musa Owiti, took his last breath on November 19, Auma’s misery and long nights of tears began.

Even before his body was interred, her brother in-law had pounced on the houses they own. Auma and her husband had separated a few weeks to his death.

“He had turned violent whenever he got drunk. One day I took my children and left and rented a small house. However, he came and apologised and we somehow reconciled,” she said.

However, due to some traditions, she could not go back to her husband yet, until she underwent some cleansing rituals.

While awaiting the rituals, Musa got sick. His condition worsened and within days, he succumbed to it.

SCRAMBLE FOR PROPERTY

When his condition started deteriorating, his brother took him away to his house, denying Auma and the children a chance to look after him.

“I had gone for my brother’s funeral when my husband died. My brother-in-law assured me they would wait for me before they bury him,” she said.

She immediately went to the brother-in-law’s house, where the funeral was being planned. However, she was denied entry and was told to remain at the gate until when she undergoes some rituals, and this forced her to go back to her house.

A day later, the brother in-law went ahead and buried Musa in accordance with the Islamic rites without Auma’s knowledge, and how they acquired a burial permit remained a mystery.

“I was called by a neighbour, asking why I was not attending my husband’s burial. I was shocked and since I was still at my brother’s home, I asked the neighbours to take my children to their father’s burial,” she said.

Later on that day, she went to the chief’s office to inquire why the chief had issued a burial permit without her knowledge.

The chief seemed not be aware of either the death or the burial and, therefore, sent her to the mortuary, where her husband’s body had been preserved.

At the hospital, it was discovered that the death notification had been taken without the deceased’s ID card, and his details were not keyed into the system, indicating something was amiss.

While Auma was figuring out how her husband got buried without her knowledge, her in-law brought down her house and even gave notice to tenants who had rented part of their house.

“My husband had warned me about such a thing happening and a few days before his death, he had told his sons not to allow their land to be sold,” she said.

Within a week, the brother in-law had started erecting some buildings.

In the blink of an eye, Auma had been widowed and left homeless, without a breadwinner or a defender.

“My father-in-law had divided his land among his children, why would my brother-in-law just come and take what was given to my husband and children,” she said.

She has reported the matter to the chief but all their efforts to reclaim their land have been futile.

When he died, I was told I had come with jinis from Mombasa which I used in killing my husband
Margaret*

DOUBLE TRAGEDY

Margaret*, a resident of Nyalenda in Kisumu, is also picking herself up after being rendered homeless and penniless by her greedy in-laws.

The mother of two lost her husband in 2016, and she was accused of sacrificing him.

“When we got married, we had nothing and we used to struggle a lot with life. I used to work so he could go to school,” she said.

Years later, the husband landed a job in Kisumu. So they moved there but their joy was short-lived as the husband soon lost his job.

She was forced to go back to Mombasa to look for a job and left her children with their father.

Her husband refused to hand over the children to her and preferred to remain with them.

She was later called and told that her husband was severely sick. She rushed to Kisumu to look after him but he later died.

“When he died, I was told I had come with jinis from Mombasa, which I used to kill my husband,” she said.

While she was setting up funeral arrangements for her late husband, a woman known to Margaret’s in-laws ransacked the house and got away with some property documents.

The woman, alongside the deceased’s family, disregarded Margaret as the wife and even wanted to exclude her from funeral arrangements.

They even produced a fake death certificate, which they presented in searching for title deeds of properties owned by the deceased.

After the burial, Margaret went back to Kisumu to start life afresh as the house and items she owned with her husband had been taken away.

“I had to sell my own clothes to sustain my life with my children. I had to change my life because I could not afford even the cheapest house,” she said.

Years later, her children are back to their father’s home, demanding their rights to own what their father left behind.

Margaret said because of her children, she has been forced to sit at the same table as her in-laws.

When a woman refuses to marry into the family, they are then denied their rights to inherit, despite these women having children
Betty Okero

FORCED TO COMPROMISE

It is due to such mistreatment that some widows succumb to pressure to get married to their husbands’ brothers to inherit property or even continue living on the deceased’s land.

Betty Okero, a paralegal at CSO-Network in Kisumu, said widows are forced to compromise their principles and either allow to be inherited or to look for a man (Jater) to marry so as to continue having a roof over their heads.

“When a woman refuses to marry into the family, they are then denied their rights to inherit, despite these women having children,” she said.

She said women also choose to be inherited to give their children an identity and legitimacy of where they are from as well as a surname.

In most African communities, the surname and “who was your father” matters a lot and, in some instances, persons are treated according to their surnames.

She said Nyanza and Western regions only give legitimacy to women owning property when the husband is alive, but the legitimacy ceases once the husband dies.

“Widow inheritance excuse is slowly fading away and the in-laws are openly grabbing properties, especially lands, openly. They deny widows their rights as some cannot fight back," she said.

Seeking legal redress, Okero said, is also complicated due to the struggle and long, tedious process involved before the cases are determined.

“Going to court means having to face your in-laws, denying your children their right to visit their relatives. And the cases also take too long before they are determined," she said.

Wellingtone Rabut, a village elder at Manyatta, said cases of widows being denied their right to inheritance, especially land, have been rampant.

Often, Rabut said, the in-laws who are wealthy collude to deny widows properties left behind by their husbands.

“Families, especially those with money, collude to take away everything from widows, yet these women who have children have all the rights to inherit the properties," he said.

To mitigate, Rabut urges men to ensure they write a will, which will clearly stipulate who should take over their properties and land once they die.

He further said fathers should ensure they official subdivide lands and mark the boundaries of each child.

“That way, when the old man dies, each child knows his or her portion of the property and will prevent unnecessary conflicts between siblings, which might stream down to when a sibling dies,” Rabut said.

This project was supported by International Women's Media Foundation.

Edited by T Jalio