Sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily impacted by HIV and AIDS than any other region in the world. The latest figures from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) show the region accounts for over two-thirds of people in the world living with HIV, and for nearly three-quarters of deaths from HIV/AIDS worldwide in 2008.
Traditional Kenyan society is patrilineal and patrilocal – that is, the family homestead is established where the man lives, and rights to the land pass through male members of the family. Women work the land, but their access to it is granted through their husbands.
Kenyan women unable to inherit land
Kenyan women cannot inherit their husbands’ homesteads when they are widowed. A custom of levirate marriage, in which a brother-in-law or other male relative “inherits” the widow and assumes responsibility for her children’s needs, is practised by a number of peoples in Kenya.
Some marriage regimes in Kenya accept polygyny, a man having more than one wife. Widow inheritance commonly leads to a man having two or more wives. Under the current conditions, this practice leads to a greater number of HIV infections: when either the widow or the husband’s relative are HIV-positive, the virus spreads from one partner to another, to another. It also creates the added risk of infecting children conceived after the inheritance takes place.
Widow inheritance increases HIV transmission exponentially
Should the second man also die of the virus, his wives will again be inherited by close family members or respected members of the local community. The goal is to provide for the widowed women and their children – but also to maintain the property of the deceased within the extended family, and to keep families living within the district where the larger clan is rooted. The relatively small pool of potential mates for each widow, and the polygamous nature of the marriages, increase the number of HIV transmissions within a given geographical region – and then the cycle continues.
High HIV/AIDS prevalence in Kenya
The prevalence of HIV in the population of adults from 15 to 49 years of age is estimated at somewhere between 7.1 and 8.5 percent in Kenya, compared to 0.6 percent for the same age group in North America. In the province of Nyanza, the infection rate is thought to be 14.7 percent – roughly double the national average. It can be as high as 41 percent in specific districts such as Suba.
The number of AIDS-related deaths has reduced the number of men eligible to inherit a widow, thus a new and lucrative trade of commercial wife inheritor has sprung up in some areas. These men generally have sex with the widows on one occasion only, as a ritual cleansing that allows a woman continued access to her deceased husband’s lands. The ritual requires “skin to skin” contact and may be observed by relatives; condom use is frowned upon, even though these professional widow inheritors mate with a large number of women at risk.
Respecting customs while protecting people against AIDS
A number of groups and individuals have spoken out against widow inheritance, not only because of its implication in HIV transmission, but because they feel Kenyan inheritance customs discriminate against women and they find polygamy distasteful.
Widow inheritance may seem antiquated and unnecessary, but it serves an important purpose in preserving the family structure and traditional land inheritance within Kenyan society. There may be more success in trying to adapt the custom to the challenges of living in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, rather than attempting to ban it outright.
One alternative to current practices would be to allow for widow inheritance by a family member, but with no sexual relations involved. This option harmonizes with the respect for the deceased husband, and the confirmation of the widow’s fidelity to her late husband. It also allows for the wife and her children to remain on the homestead and be supported by the extended family, without increasing the risk of HIV transmission from widow to brother-in-law, or vice versa.
Another possibility would be to carry out the cleansing ritual with a professional who uses a condom, or to carry out a completely symbolic form of the ritual. One variant, often used with widows beyond their childbearing years, involves leaving a suit of the brother-in-law’s clothes in the widow’s home over night. This rite of passage serves to mark the woman’s transition from a wife to a widow, and affords her continued access to the deceased husband’s land.
Kenyan law allows a woman to hold the land in trust for her children if she is widowed when they are too young to inherit. Educating the public of this right could provide support for alternative arrangements that involve symbolic or safer sex, or that involve a support-only relationship between the widow and the extended family.
President Obama’s Kenyan roots
Nyanza province is inhabited mainly by the Luo people, the third largest ethnic group in Kenya. US President Barack Obama’s paternal relatives are from Kenya, and are Luo. Both his father and his grandfather had larger families, consisting of several wives and the children produced from their multiple marriages.
Stephen Buckley, “Wife inheritance spurs AIDS rise in Kenya.” Washington Post
” Discrimination against women in Kenya.” Global Exchange
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“HIV/AIDS: Facts at a glance.” Global Health Report
“Kenya AIDS indicator survey 2007.
” Republic of Kenya”Kenya: Cultural traditions fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS.” PlusNews
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Obama’s Kenyan roots.” New York Times
Winsley Masese, “Wife inheritance persists in Nyanza despite scourge.” The Standard
“Sub-Saharan Africa: Latest epidemiological trends.” UNAIDS