Kenya: Meru Widow's Bitter Test Pushes Her to Seek Justice for Her Ilk

25 November 2020

When Ms Cynthia Kananu, a mother of two, lost her husband in 2011, her in-laws turned against her. They viewed her with suspicion over her husband's death and denied her a share of his property.

Her experience left her traumatized and bitter. It, however, inspired the formation of Inua Mama Mjane Foundation that defends the welfare and rights of widows in Meru.

Ms Kananu says there are more than 80,000 widows in Meru, most of whom have been kicked out of their matrimonial homes and disinherited by in-laws - an injustice she is determined to stop.

"A widow is not just a woman or single mother. We are a third gender that needs special attention from the government through policy development and resource allocation," Ms Kananu quips.

Harrowing stories

She initiated Inua Mama Mjane as a self-help group with 11 other widows in 2012, where they engage in merry-go-round and welfare support.

Ms Kananu says that during their meetings, women share harrowing stories of their experiences in the hands of in-laws.

"I was convinced that I had to do something about the suffering of widows. Since my colleagues could not buy my idea, I started sensitising people in churches. Despite the Bible having instructions for the Church to protect widows, they have been neglected," she says.

She notes that her main focus in the sensitisation forums is widows' property rights and the procedure for claiming the deceased husband's property.

It was not until 2018, when she started facilitating formation of self-help groups for widows and widowers across Meru County, which later formed Inua Mama Mjane Community-based Organisation (CBO).

Transfer of land

Ms Kananu says a random survey in Meru established that gender-based violence, widow inheritance, disinheritance and eviction was rife.

"I met widows who have court disputes as old as 40 years. When a woman loses a husband, the community becomes judgmental. Instances of in-laws attempting to inherit the widow have also been reported in some parts of Meru. Transfer of land to widows remains the biggest source of court battles," Ms Kananu says.

The foundation provides legal education to widows to enable them competently defend themselves in court besides lobbying for speedy resolution of land disputes.

She says chiefs also play a major role in depriving widows of their land rights. The administrators, she notes, approve the succession process and are mostly bribed by mean in-laws to approve plans that side-line the widow.

To avert these injustices, Ms Kananu is advocating for the establishment of a widows' directorate in the national government's gender department to address their plight.

Deprived of property

"Just like the youth and persons living with disabilities, widows need special attention from the government. Widowers only suffer psychologically due to death of the wife, but widows continue suffering because of being deprived of property," she says.

The Inua Mama Mjane Foundation director advises married women to not only mourn, but also be on a high alert if they, unfortunately, lose their husbands. She notes that the scheme to disinherit a widow starts in the early days of bereavement when burial plans are in top gear.

Ms Kananu says some of the schemes unscrupulous in-laws use include rushing to sign the burial permit, which is needed when collecting the death certificate, as well as taking vital documents of the deceased.

"I advise women that as much as they are mourning, they must be alert. The first thing a widow should do is secure the husband's ID card and other vital documents. The first few days after the death of a husband are critical," she recounts.

Justice system

Most women, she says, choose to abandon the struggle and start life as single mothers due to frustrations by the justice system.

However, she notes the need for men to adopt the culture of writing a will and being transparent on property and the existence of children born -out of wedlock.

Due to her initiatives, Ms Kananu has been nominated for the MTM Special recognition, and achievement and excellence awards, in the United Kingdom.

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