Health

African widows: COVID-19 takes husbands and much more

As Anayo Mbah gave birth to her sixth child, her husband Jonas was battling COVID-19 in another hospital. Jonas, a motorcycle taxi driver, was receiving oxygen after beginning to cough up blood.

Jonas never got to know his daughter, Chinaza. Hours after her delivery, Mbah’s sister-in-law called to tell her that her husband had passed away. Soon after, the hospital staff told Mbah that she had to leave with her baby. Nobody paid for the expenses.

Anayo began the rituals of widowhood in the house where she lived with her in-laws: She had to shave her head and wear white clothes. A few weeks into the mourning period, which traditionally lasts six months, her husband’s relatives stopped giving her food and soon confronted her directly.

“They told me that I had to fend for myself,” said Mbah, who is now 29 years old. “That if I had to remarry, I would. That the sooner I left the house, the better for me and for the boys”.

He went on foot to his mother’s house, with a plastic bag in which he carried all the things of Chinaza and his other children.

Throughout Africa, many women have been widowed, especially in the continent’s least developed countries, where medical services are scarce. Widows are often young women, married to individuals much older than themselves. And in some countries, men have more than one wife and when they die, they leave several widows.

The pandemic has significantly increased the number of widows on the African continent, where men are more likely to die from the virus than women, and this has exacerbated the situations faced by widows. Women like Mbah say the pandemic took more than just their husbands: Widowhood costs them their families, their homes, and their futures.

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This report is part of a series on the impact of the pandemic on women in Africa, particularly in less developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for the content.

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Widowed, women are often mistreated and disinherited. Laws prohibit many of them from acquiring land or receiving part of their husband’s assets. Their in-laws ask for custody of the children or are unaware of them and refuse to help them, even if they were the only source of support. Young widows do not have adult children to support them in poor communities, without many employment opportunities.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, about 70% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths have been men, according to the Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Project. More than 70% of deaths in Chad, Malawi, Somalia and the Congo are men, according to the project. Other countries show similar trends, but do not have the resources to keep detailed statistics.

Experts say some widows have nothing and others are pressured into marrying brothers-in-law, with the threat of being left to fend for themselves. Widows sometimes begin to be mistreated by their in-laws even before their husbands have been buried.

“Some are treated as outcasts, accused of being responsible for the deaths of their husbands,” said Egodi Blessing Igwe of the WomenAid Collective, which has helped thousands of widows with legal services and family mediation.

In the Congo, Vanessa Emedy Kamana had known her husband for a decade before he proposed to her. She was her secretary. When they started a romantic relationship, Godefroid Kamana was approaching 70 years old. She was a single mother in her early 30s.

When he passed away, his relatives showed up at the house where she had begun the period of mourning. Widows are generally asked to stay in their homes, where they can receive visitors. The duration of mourning varies according to religion and ethnic group. Kamana, whose family is Muslim, was supposed to stay in the house for four months and ten days. But the relatives of her husband did not wait that long to force her to leave and leave her and her son on the street. They showed up at night, the day of her funeral.

She feared that her husband’s family would try to take custody of her son, Jamel, whom her husband had adopted, giving him his name. She did not do it because the boy, who is now six years old, was not her biological son. But she moved quickly to appropriate her property. She and her son live in a small house owned by her mother. Kamana’s widow sells used clothes at a market. She initially collected 40% of her husband’s salary, but those payments will be suspended soon.

In West Africa, widowhood is especially harsh in areas where polygamy is rife. The first wife, or her children, usually asks to inherit the house and all the assets of the husband. Saliou Diallo, 35, says she would have been left with nothing if her husband didn’t put her house in her name and not his. Guinean law provides that the various wives receive very little and that almost all of the man’s assets — 87.5% — go to the children.

Diallo’s husband, El Hadj, 74, was building a house for her and their four-year-old daughter when he fell ill.

Diallo knew the plight of women who lose a husband: When she was 13, she became a second wife and was left a widow in her twenties. El Hadj had several wives, but he decided to marry her and raise her three children as his own. They were together for a decade, until El Hadj caught the virus.

In the last conversation they had, he lamented that the house still had no windows. That she hadn’t lived long enough to put in a well, so she didn’t have to carry water on her head. She suspected that other relatives of hers would surely try to get her out of the house when he was gone. Relatives of Diallo asked for the papers of the house that El Hadj had built for her. She gave them photocopies, but she kept the originals for herself.

With the help of his own family, he got the money to put windows in the house. There is light but no lamps. The only thing he has in the living room, which is not painted, are some plastic chairs.

“I am sure that God has a surprise for me. I give myself to him,” she expressed. “I have faith”.

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Larson also reported from Goma, Congo, and Conakry, Guinea. Boubacar Diallo collaborated from Conakry (Guinea).

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