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AIDS widows: women who lose everything

Across Africa, the AIDS pandemic is creating chaos for hundreds of thousands of women forced to leave their land and homes when their husbands die.

When Anna Ndila's husband became ill with AIDS and fell in to a coma, she and her three children were ordered to leave the family home.

'My mother-in-law told me she did not want another grave on her compound and threw me out. I was not even allowed to attend my husband's burial. I was too sick also and they taunted me that my end has come.' Anna is HIV-positive.

Her hut in the compound was destroyed by her in-laws and her small farm was seized. When she tried to return to her parental home in the village, she was thwarted by her brothers. 'They threatened me with a machete and told me I was persona non grata there. That is how I ended up in the Nairobi slums.'

Anna left her village in the drought-ridden region of eastern Kenya and headed to the capital, Nairobi. Two years on, she is living with her children in a tiny single-room mud shack in Kiambiu, an informal settlement on the edge of the city. Her new home has no furniture and the family sleeps on the floor.

Anna feels she has been the victim of discrimination several times over. 'I was told that I was not legally married since my husband had not given three goats to my family. I believe if he had, they would not have kicked me out.'

Anna is resigned to her fate and hawks fruit by the side of a dusty road that leads to Kiambiu to make a living. On the day we met, she had only managed to sell a few pieces of fruit. 'We do not make much. On a good day I can sell fruit worth about one US dollar.

When she has nothing to eat, Anna walks to the nearby offices of a charity, the Kenya Network of Women with Aids, which gives her some food for her and her family.

There are statutory laws which could help her get back her land, but she would need a lawyer to help fight against the patriarchy and customary laws practiced in the village. But at the moment, she doesn't feel that's a priority.

'If I started thinking about those things, I would die very quickly and leave my children with no-one. But one day I will go back.'

Thirty-two-year-old Joyce Gathoni was kicked out of her home on the slopes of Mount Kenya when her husband died of AIDS in 2002. 'They said that AIDS would stigmatise the family. I tried to resist but when my son also died of AIDS they said he could not be buried. It took the church's intervention [to enable the burial to go ahead] but from that point on I realised I was not wanted. I left.'

Her husband's family immediately sold her three cows and locked her house up. 'It is hard to convince my children that we are no longer wanted there. I left all my things behind and I have to struggle today to feed them.'

Joyce tried to get her property back through the Attorney General's office. 'I was very sick at that time and they told me to go and get the land documents. But they are with my brother-in-law and he has refused to give me a copy.'

'My parents are dead – they died after I got married. They had not left me with any property since traditionally I could not inherit from them when I was married.'

According to customary law in Kenya, property is divided between the sons. It is rare that daughters inherit land or homes from their parents, because it is assumed they will marry and inherit from their husband in the event of his death.

But today, many husbands are dying young and their widows are often denied the right to keep the home and farm. The AIDS pandemic has catastrophically exacerbated the vulnerability of women like Joyce.

The government has introduced laws which offer more protection. When a parent dies without leaving a will, all the children – whether male or female, married or unmarried, young or old – should share the deceased's property equally.

Joyce wishes that this law was put into practice. 'I know so many women who have been thrown out of their homes and are living in the shopping centres.'

Since Joyce has been married once, it's difficult for her to find a new partner and financial supporter. Today she works as a community health worker with a local NGO. Her main work is visiting bed-ridden patients in their homes – many of whom are HIV positive or ill with AIDS-related diseases. Joyce cooks, does housekeeping and helps with bathing, dressing and monitoring their treatment. In this way she manages to earn a living.

Anna and Joyce's stories are not unusual. Across sub-Saharan Africa, there is a growing population of so-called 'AIDS Widows' who, when their husbands die, lose their land and property rights under customary law and, increasingly, are evicted from their home.

In some parts of Kenya, widows traditionally take part in practices such as 'wife inheritance', where they are automatically married to a relative of their late husband. Or, they have to undergo a 'ritual cleansing' ceremony in which they sleep with a man – often a professional cleanser – in the widespread belief that this will purify them of disease.

It is very difficult for women to refuse to go through with either wife inheritance or ritual cleansing – or sometimes both. If they want to find a new husband, keep their home or find security for their children, there is really very little option.

But it is a time of confusion and chaos. Wife inheritance and ritual cleansing are highly risky practices for both the widows and the communities they live in, and are certainly contributing to the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Yet if a widow refuses to participate she risks eviction and destitution. Even if she is willing to take part, fear of AIDS means that when a man dies young his widow is likely to be thrown out on the streets almost immediately. She loses everything.

This cocktail of factors produces predictable statistics. Today, well over half of those living with HIV in Kenya are women, and young women in particular are about five times more likely than boys and men to be infected.

The story of Kenya's AIDS Widows is not new. But in the last few years there has been a growing awareness that the calamity of hundreds of thousands of women losing everything when their husbands die young is a national emergency.

Research carried out in Kenya by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found violation of women's property rights is taking place on a massive scale, perpetrated by a mixture of relatives and in-laws and local communities, but also by the government failing to enforce laws that could protect women.

In their report, Double Standards, Women's Property Rights Violations in Kenya, published in 2002, HRW presented findings from interviews with scores of widows in rural and urban areas. Most of them have lost their land or homes or both, are infected with HIV and are bringing up children, sometimes on the streets.

Kamau King'ara is a lawyer and the founding director of Oscar Foundation, which runs a free Legal Aid Clinic. He fights for women's property rights through the law courts, which often run in parallel with traditional civil courts where disputes are settled. He explains that the stories Anna and Joyce tell are entirely typical of a generation of young widows who have made their way to the streets of Nairobi.

Most of the cases he handles are young widows and children who are dispossessed or disinherited and kicked out of the family on the death of the husband or father. The women are normally accused of infecting the husband, and she and the children are forced out on the street.

King'ara says the state is supposed to take practical legal measures to stop customary trends that discriminate against women. But there is a wide gap between the law and how it is enforced.

Human Rights Watch, lawyers such as King'ara and many other campaigners believe that the heart of the problem, and the best chance of finding a lasting solution, lie with the government taking steps to strengthen and enforce laws surrounding women's rights to own land and property, and to inherit it from their families and husbands.

They call for legal reforms and nationwide education campaigns about women's rights. And they recommend that family courts are set up all over Kenya to deal with the enormous number of disputes and backlog of cases.

Is change likely? Many in Kenya had been pinning their hopes on the new Kenyan constitution. The draft contains two articles which give hope to women. One is that women will have equal land and property rights enshrined in the constitution. And the other puts land reform at the heart of the political agenda.

However, the Kenyan people rejected the constitution with a massive 'No' vote in 2005 – which may have been a vote of no confidence for the new president, Kibaki, rather than a comment on most of its content. Whatever happens next, many believe that unless something as influential as a new constitution takes up the cause, the calamity surrounding women's land rights, widows and AIDS is unlikely to go away. 

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