She sat quietly, head bowed to her left. I could see some waters drifting from the corners of her eyes. I knew that something was not right. She was almost my mother’s age. She was beautiful in her dark melanin skin, a true embodiment of African beauty. As I sat close to her, I slowly slipped my hand onto her lap, whilst figuring what to do next. I remembered from my elementary counselling sessions that I had to give her time to collect herself before conversing. Suddenly she broke down and started sobbing.
Mrs Mkandla (not her real name) eventually calmed down but still unsure of herself. Now she was quiet, playing with the edges of her wrap (Zambia). As I gazed empathetically on the poor woman I knew she had something very important to share with me. I knew for sure that during dialogue session, I had provoked some issues that had awakened a lot of wounds particularly to those living in or had survived abuses. There are a lot of abuses that women are subjected to in the name of culture and tradition. Despite continued awareness raising, there are lots of gaps that still need to be addressed, particularly those that are deep rooted in the people’s way of life.
The day had been very hot, I was at least happy to have finished facilitating the community dialogue on gender based violence, HIV and maternal health on time. It was around 3 pm and it needed almost 4 hours for us to drive back to Binga centre, which is situated 217 km from Lubimbi ward where we were having the community dialogue. Following the community dialogue, I had invited those who wanted bilateral discussion. Mrs Mkandla became the first one.
Binga district is one of the six districts in Zimbabwe that has high rates of maternal deaths and gender based violence fuelled by cultural practices, norms, values and beliefs. The district is situated in the Zambezi valley. At the other side is the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. The district is home to the vast natural resources in particular the mighty Zambezi River that can be seen meandering towards the right side of the district, the beautiful hot springs and the rich museum that houses history of the Tonga people. It is also notorious for the tasty smoked dried fish and the juicy ‘usika’ fruit which is believed to relieve all sorts of ailments, malaria included. Despite such a wealth of natural resources, which could attract tourists, Binga remains one of the marginalised districts in Zimbabwe.
It is in this district that people still practice some cultural beliefs that render women vulnerable to GBV and HIV infection. One specific cultural practise that sent a cold chill down my throat was the practice of widow cleansing that dictates that a widow has to sleep with her late husband’s male relative so that she is not haunted by the spirit of her late husband. Some families get to the extent of sending back the widow to her kinsman if she refuse to be cleansed.
It is this practise that Mrs Mkandla blames for her HIV positive status
“I was HIV negative, I know that because when my husband was ill, we got tested together, we even went back for HIV tests twice prior to his death. He had succumbed to diabetes. He was constantly in and out of hospital for almost a year until he eventually died in March this year.”
Hardly a month following the death of her husband, Mrs Mkandla was given an option by her in laws to either let the widow cleansing ceremony be conducted or she would return to her kinsman. The widow cleansing ceremony is a ritualised dissolution of the bond of the spirit of the dead man and his wife through her submission to sexual intercourse with one of his living relatives. It is said that the practice saves her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. The practice is rooted in the belief that a woman is haunted by spirits after her husband dies and a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. In many instances a widow must undergo this ritual before she can be inherited by her husband’s brother or other relative. As for Mrs Mkandla, they had said that she had the right to choose to be inherited or she would go back to her kinsman.
“It seemed like they had given me a choice, but to me it was a compulsion because I had no parents’ house to go to, as you can see I am almost 47. I worked hard to acquire the property that I value so much, telling me to go back to my kinsman was a joke.”
Mrs Mkandla gave in. A small round hut of poles only was built at the centre of the yard, the hut was decorated with beads, and the widow went inside the hut to be cleansed by her husband’s younger brother while other family members ululated and rejoiced as they sang and danced around the hut.
“As if that was not enough, babamdiki kept coming to my house for sex, he said that he wanted to make sure I conceive. The child born from the union would carry the spirit of my husband, that would mean I was cleansed and my husband’s spirit would not haunt me.
She was traumatised, she needed counselling, from the short period that I was in Binga, I could not do much except refer her to Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development for further counselling. In as much as some pockets of the Binga community have completely done away with the practice, it is imperative within these 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence to continue spreading the word on the dangers of such practices.
Upon careful reflection, I realised that widow cleansing is a custom that denies women their basic sexual and reproductive health rights, and increases their susceptibility to HIV infection. On the other hand, the widow also risks losing all her property to the man who inherits her. Emotional abuse is also evident as the sexual relations are not preceded by formal equal consent. Women have continued to remain faithful to their husbands and the entire community, while men may be promiscuous even within marriage. Even after the death of the husband, society still demands that woman to remain faithful to the former husband. Women are not expected to move on with life, instead by virtue of being married to one man, it is as if you are married to the whole clan. Everyone would want to assume control over you. It is sad reality that in Binga there are very few Gender Based Violence programmes that are being done. The ones being done are just concentrated in the town. In rural wards like Lubimbi, not much is being done to address the scourge.
In my short time as I programed in Binga, I could see a huge gap in terms of just basic information on GBV, let alone women’s rights information. This calls for programs to consider the marginalized communities. When we give women equal opportunities with men, families, communities and the whole country benefit. Women’s rights should not be misunderstood as leading to family breakdown. Instead, they should be established as a way to help two lovers to share ideas and plans to build a strong family and together grow wiser and stronger. Upon the death of the other, one should be left to enjoy the fruits of labour acquired when both partners were still alive, that way, we will live harmoniously.
Article written by Olga Makoni. Olga Makoni has over 5 years experience in a gender and development issues with particular focus on women’s rights and adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health rights. (SRHR) She has worked with people from diverse background including the marginalized women and girls. She is also a leadership trainer and young people’s mentor on SRHR.
Main image taken from www.indialivetoday.com