Tanzanian tradition of widow sexual cleansing causes spread of HIV infection in many cases
MARA,Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) —Lydia Nyamaka, who refused to be “inherited” by her brother-in-law through a custom known as sexual cleansing after her husband died, is an outcast.
Since her husband’s death two years ago Nyamaka leads a lonely life. Her in-laws don’t want to talk to her because she spurned their traditions.
A devout Christian, she comforts herself by reading scripture from the Holy Bible. “I have found comfort in Jesus, for he is my lord and provider,” she said.
The 37-year-old widow, who lives among members of Luo tribe at Nyahongo village about 1,120 km from Dar es Salaam, strongly opposes the widow tradition-- a salient feature of Luo custom in which a widow is inherited by her in-laws after she has sex with one of her husband’s siblings.
Nyamaka’s in-laws tried in vain to convince her to exorcise the spirit of her dead husband through sexual cleansing.
Not only was Nyamanka afraid of contracting HIV/AIDS, which is taking its toll in the village, but she is a Jehovah’s Witness, a faith that does not support such customs.
She has since ended up in a feud with her in-laws who threaten to chase her from husband’s property and take away the livestock because she has broken with tradition.
With the help of a neighbor, Nyamaka managed to get some legal assistance from the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA), a local NGO, to prevent her in-laws from taking her property.
“I have approached them and they have assured me of support. Since I am in a vulnerable position, they will deter my in-laws from tampering with my property,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nyamaka’s case tells the bleak story of many women in northern areas of Tanzania who suffer social stigma for rejecting traditions and customs that, among other things, expose them to risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Luo tribe tradition dictates that a woman is expected to offer her body to a shemeji (brother-in-law) within 40 days of her husband’s death to chase away the spirit which would otherwise haunt her.
Most residents of Nyahongo who spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation said such customs are still widespread in their communities and that there is a need for the government to further educate the society to abandon outdated customs.
Residents said that there is an emerging trend where “professional cleansers,” known as joter, offer widow cleansing for payment.
According to the villagers, joter sniff around cases of death to find out if their widow cleansing service would be needed.
“Depending on the financial ability of the widow, they would charge you up to Tsh. 40,000(US$25) to cleanse you,” said Subira Mwita, who underwent widow cleansing herself when her husband died six years ago.
In Luo tradition, women who refuse to carry out the ritual are cursed and made responsible for their spouse’s death.
Widow cleansing and wife inheritance are among traditional customs that continue in Tanzania, Kenya and parts of Malawi. Medical professionals are certain that they contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
A survey conducted by the Tanzania Commission for AIDS (TACAIDS) in 2011/12 indicates that the Mara region, where such customs are practiced, has a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS with a regional average of 4.5% compared to the national average of 5.7%
Women’s rights activists say most traditional rituals in the area discourage gender equality, leaving women without the power or means to negotiate safer sex, thus exposing them to risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
"It is not easy to end something that was done for so long, but with constant education and awareness campaigns some of these traditions will disappear," said Usu Malya, an activist with Tanzania Gender Networking Programme.
However, some activists working with non-governmental organisations in the region claimed that the cleansing ritual, deeply embedded in the culture, is not forced upon widows and in some instances widows themselves call for it.
“A lot of women we have spoken with admit to have slept with men at their own pleasure to avoid the curse,” said Aloyce Mwema of Tanzania Youth Alliance, a local organisation that raises awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Mwema, however, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that many people who long had embraced such traditions are beginning to change as they are educated about the consequences.
--Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, who specialises in reporting on climate change, governance and women’s rights issues.
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