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General News | Jul 7, 2004

Woe for the widows of Ghana

Lyz Laurin for cbc

Anahor sits in a tiny mud room surrounded by elderly women. Her face is etched with the scarring of the Fra-Fra tribe and her eyes are full of sadness. She will not be able to leave this room for two weeks. Anahor's husband is dead. He fell sick suddenly and died the day before we met her.

Anahor can't tell us how old she is, she doesn't know. Maybe 40, maybe 50, maybe 60. She is holding a knife to protect herself from her dead husband's spirit. It is custom.

The day her husband died, Anahor participated in another traditional custom. She was stripped naked, with only leaves covering her private parts, while her husband was buried.

"I am not happy," Anahor explains through an interpreter. "It is because it is a custom. If it were not a custom I would not have to be stripped naked."

Annea went through the same thing seven years ago when her husband died. "Before even they came to tell me my husband was dead I was wearing clothes," she explains. "They removed all the clothes, they removed them before they even asked me to wear the leaves to prepare for the funeral. Many people were there."

There are several ethnic groups in Ghana's Upper East Region. But the ritual stripping of widows is a practice that is common throughout the region. In some cases, the women are taken out to bath by a rubbish dump. One elderly woman will throw hot water on the widow; another woman will throw cold water. If the hot water hits first, the widow is scalded.

Some widows have their heads shaved and a rope tied around their necks. Many widows are forced to sit outside on a mat overnight, wearing nothing but their funeral leaves. If an ant bites the widow, it means she has been unfaithful to her husband.

And the abuse doesn't stop with the funeral rites. Many widows suffer long after their husbands' bodies are in the ground. Many are forced to marry other men in their late husband's family. Some are told they can't marry at all, not for years, because the family doesn't have the money to pay for a proper funeral. Often, property is taken from the wife and given to the husband's family.

When Beatrice Saar's husband died, she was left to take care of her three children. But her brother-in-law kicked her out of the family home. Each time she tried to return, he beat her.

"I am his dog," she says, "He has to kill me or he is not satisfied. I am in his palm. Any day he will squeeze me and kill me."

Betty Ayageba has heard thousands of stories like this. She is a widow herself. When her husband died, his family took all her property. But, as a registered nurse, Betty could work. She began the Widows and Orphans Ministry. So far, the NGO has registered more than 7,000 widows in the Upper East Region. The widows learn skills, like making shea butter, making baskets or weaving cloth. They get some income – less than $2 a week – but they say it helps feed their children.

Ayageba believes that, in many cases, families abuse widows because they don't want the responsibility to providing for the woman and her children. She says it's easier for families to ostracize the woman and ignore her than to provide her with food. Polygamy is common here, and when a man dies, he can leave not only one family with mouths to feed, but several.

"They don't want to take care of you. They can only label you to be a bad woman, so that nobody will sympathize with you. They will accuse you of being a witch so that nobody will go near you."

Lawmakers have tried to stop the abuse of widows in Ghana. In 1989, Ghana amended its penal code, making it illegal to harm a person after his or her spouse has died. However, many of the women here don't know about the law. And even if they did, Ayageba says many avoid taking their persecutor to court because the process is lengthy and, in many cases, a widow who tries to stand up for her rights faces more and increased abuse.

The Widows and Orphans Ministry is working with the Women and Juvenile Unit of the Ghana Police to try to educate communities about the law. They have one assault case in court, and say they have had several successful mediations between widows and their abusive families.

But according to the public relations officer for the police in Bolgatanga, the police simply can't get around to doing the outreach and education they need to. At the police headquarters in the Upper East Region, there is only one working car.

My colleague and I only had one day to spend listening to the widows' stories, before we had to take the 13-hour bus ride to Accra. But everyone we were introduced to wanted to talk. I was operating the camera, and there were several interviews that I knew we simply couldn't use. To save tape and battery power, I turned the camera off, but we conducted interviews anyway. It seemed these women just wanted us to share in their suffering, in the hopes someone, somewhere could make it go away.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- LETTERS:

As much as I like reading about Miss Duncombes stories from Ghana, I find them quiet disheartening as well as fairly one-sided.

Ghana is a country who's people I have come to love and respect during my stay there this past year. From early december, till mid-March, I was living with a family in Bolgatanga, Upper East Region. This city, along with the fra-fra tribe was the focus of Miss Duncombes most recent article.

The articles I have read by Lyndsay include one about Ghanaian men who abuse their wives, children who are sold into slavery, women who are abused and rejected when their husbands pass,etc.. What Miss Duncombe fails to mention is the positive side of life in Ghana. I bet I could find just as many negative stories about life in Canada(Do men not beat their wives here?,etc..etc..)

What about the men/women of Ghana(Dr. Kwasi Odoi-Agyarko for example) who are fighting for the rights of young women in this country. His work is dedicated to educating rural areas and T.B.A's(Traditional Birth Attendants, or a midwife) in safe birthing practices,etc.(www.ruralhelp.org)

Rather than focus on the negative aspects of Ghanaian life, Miss Duncombe could write the same articles, while at the same time giving exposure to those men/women who are trying to aid those who need it.

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