AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing’

I had no idea that the practice of the relatives of the deceased sleeping with widows was that widespread. Hard to imagine that the practice could be condoned. I don’t think it is cultural imperialism for outsiders to suggest this is a bad idea. The best turn is that local actors are now starting to believe this as well. From the Times:



Here and in a number of nearby nations including Zambia and Kenya, a husband’s funeral has long concluded with a final ritual: sex between the widow and one of her husband’s relatives, to break the bond with his spirit and, it is said, save her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it, as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life.


Now AIDS is changing that. Political and tribal leaders are starting to speak out publicly against so-called sexual cleansing, condemning it as one reason H.I.V. has spread to 25 million sub-Saharan Africans, killing 2.3 million last year alone. They are being prodded by leaders of the region’s fledging women’s rights movement, who contend that lack of control over their sex lives is a major reason 6 in 10 of those infected in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

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One Response to “AIDS Now Compels Africa to Challenge Widows’ ‘Cleansing’”

  1. What role if any is there for the international community, for donors, for outsiders to change custom and behavior known to be high-risk for HIV infection? Wife inheritance or “cleansing” activities in the HIV era require a willingness to rethink age-old practices. There is can be a high risk element if the male relative refuses to use a condom and it also brings up stark questions of human rights – a right to determine one’s own sexuality. Village demands that a young widow give herself to the deceased husband’s male relative(s), potentially HIV infected, smack of the “sacrificial virgin” mentality.

    The NYTimes reports on “widow cleansing”:

    MCHINJI, Malawi – In the hours after James Mbewe was laid to rest three years ago, in an unmarked grave not far from here, his 23-year-old wife, Fanny, neither mourned him nor accepted visits from sympathizers. Instead, she hid in his sister’s hut, hoping that the rest of her in-laws would not find her. But they hunted her down, she said, and insisted that if she refused to exorcise her dead husband’s spirit, she would be blamed every time a villager died. So she put her two small children to bed and then forced herself to have sex with James’s cousin. “I cried, remembering my husband,” she said. “When he was finished, I went outside and washed myself because I was very afraid. I was so worried I would contract AIDS and die and leave my children to suffer.”