21 May 2002

Uganda: Kiyonga; Wife Inheritance is Not the Big Issue Anymore

Former Health minister and now National Political Commissar Dr. Crispus Kiyonga has said widow "inheritance" is backward. He said widow inheritance has led to the spread of AIDS because once a woman whose husband has died of the disease doesn't have the outside signs of being HIV positive, the pressure for her to be inherited is very high.

On the surface Kiyonga is right. But he has oversimplified the problem. A widow whose husband works in town and dies, and therefore she has to retire to the village, is usually more sophisticated than the other rural women. That fact alone is so tempting for the men, they will not be discouraged from pursuing her, hoping they will be the "lucky" ones who might not be infected.

However, recent research evidence suggests that the way to prevent an HIV positive widow from sleeping with the whole village is to put her in a social context where someone can claim the right to control her behaviour. Thus if she is seen as someone's wife, she is less likely to have multiple affairs. If she is seen to be free, she will have more affairs. And the problem is not the institution of inheritance.

Rather it has more to do with the attitude of men as such. There have been known cases where an "AIDS widow" goes to live in the home of her in-laws, who are saved, with the "head" of the home being a pastor. After a year, the pastor, his brother, and two sons are all HIV positive because by day they proclaimed to be saved and condemned wife inheritance, but at night they sneaked up on the widow.

Dr. Kiyonga should, surely, be aware of these developments and should stop preaching and moralising against "backward culture". He is better off prescribing serious economic interventions that make the widow more able to sustain herself, and less vulnerable to be either exploited or to have sex well knowing she is HIV positive.

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