Date: Sun, 1 Nov 1998 13:48:40 -0600 (CST)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: RIGHTS-CONGO: Downtrodden Widows Break Centuries-Long Silence
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Downtrodden Widows Break Centuries-Long Silence
By Esther Pabou Mbaki, 28 October 1998
BRAZZAVILLE, Oct 28 (IPS) - Women in Congo have started speaking out against the humiliations they endure in the name of custom when their husbands die, although their movement is still feeling its way.
Odile Kounde came up with the idea of forming l'Association chretienne de veuves congolaises (Christian Association of Congolese Widows) after she realised that Congolese society does not address the many abuses to which women in general, and widows in particular, are subjected.
When a man dies in Congo, his wife often undergoes degrading treatment at the hands of her in-laws, under the guise of respecting customary law.
The association, which seeks to defend widows' rights, has been linking up with human rights organisations and prayer groups to talk about their plight. They have no difficulty coming up with examples drawn from their own lives.
"For five days, I could not take a bath or even change my underwear," says Kounde. "I bent my head and cried. The odours from my body went straight up into my nostrils. In fact, I was no longer crying over my husband's death, but because of my sad fate. I was only able to take a wash on the day of the funeral and, even then, I only had time to clean my private parts."
In most cases, the widow is made to cry continuously until her late husband is buried. She has to keep looking at the ground, otherwise any relative of the deceased can spit in her face. She does not have the right to raise her voice, except when weeping. She has to speak in a murmur and only when absolutely necessary. Her water and food are rationed.
In some ethnic groups, the widow is obliged to recall happy moments spent with her late husband for the benefit of his family.
"While I was crying, I was forced to recite the best dishes I cooked for my husband, our worldly pleasures, the number of garments he bought for me, even the money I spent each month to buy food," says Nzaou, another widow. "One of my sisters-in-law even forced me to show how I walked when I wore classy shoes."
"We denounce this humiliating treatment," says Roger Owoko, head of communications at the Congolese Human Rights Observatory. "We are fighting against these practices that violate the dignity of women. Being a widow does not mean becoming the slave of in- laws."
The widow also foots most of the bill for the burial. She buys the coffin and burial cloths, or has to contribute a fixed sum of money, which varies from region to region, and from family to family.
In the Pool region, in the south, she pays 200,000 CFA, while in Olombo, in the north, the fee is 100,000 CFA. (The CFA exchanges at 550 to the U.S. dollar and 100,000 CFA or 180 U.S. dollars is a large sum in Congo.) The money is supposed to be a blessing from the widow to her departed husband, and she has to pay all or part of it before her first bath.
Widows are obliged to wear black, white or black-and-white clothing, and are not allowed to comb their hair.
The household's property is often taken from the widow by her in-laws and, to avoid this some women endure another abusive tradition: 'widow inheritance'. This occurs when in-laws demand that the widow remarry a younger brother or cousin of her late husband, the explanation given is that this is to make sure the children and property are protected.
There is little protection for the widows against the abuses they endure. Most of Congo's laws are patterned after Western ones and do not address local realities while those that do tend not to be enforced.
"The men who designed the Congolese Family Code are also heirs in their families," says Kounde. "In such a case, can they solve our problems? Widows are the only people who are able to wage this fight, but we do not have money."
"We have not managed to pay the 30,000 CFA francs that we owe to the proprietor of the two-hectare plot that we want to buy to carry out (income-generating) activities," association secretary Tsilou Georgette explains.
The group also needs the assistance of a lawyer, but attorneys have to be paid, Kounde says. For an embryonic organisation like the Christian Association of Congolese Widows, coming up with lawyers' fees is a tall order. For individual women, it's even harder, although a few manage to do so.
"Right now I have a complaint on my desk from a widow who was illtreated by her in-laws," says Brazzaville attorney Emmanuelle Oko. "We have been advising the widow not to bow to tradition and to believe in the law, which can solve her problems."
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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