In Kenya, the culture is still heavily influenced by age-old male-dominated tribal traditions. What happens when a Kenyan woman's husband dies?

Land in Kenya is owned by the husband. The husband's family holds first claim to his lands and goods. When a man dies, if he has living brothers, those brothers can (and usually do) lay claim to all his possessions. If he has no brothers, yet has a living father, the father can lay claim. So except in pretty rare circumstances, a man's wife loses everything when he dies-- land, home, and everything but her unquestionably personal possessions. She may even lose all rights to key decisions about her children, or even her rights to child custody. However, since raising children takes extra responsibility, she is usually left with all responsibility for the care, education, and feeding of any children.

Remarriage is usually out of the question, particularly if the woman is a Christian. By tribal tradition, she is expected to return to her husband's home village. If she is to remarry, she is expected to marry one of her husband's brothers to continue the family line. This is the tradition, even if all the brothers are already married. I cannot say with absolute authority that this one point is true of all African tribes, but it is certainly true of those I met-- They are traditionally polygamous. That is, one man may have many wives. This becomes a real stumbling-block if the widow is a Christian. She must make a decision. She may either submit to the tribal tradition, or stand against it. If she chooses to stand against tradition, she will face harassment for a time. Hopefully this will quiet down after months or years. In some cases, though, no matter where she moves she is hunted and pursued by her husband's family.

If she not only defies tradition by not returning to marry a brother-in-law, but also chooses to remarry outside of the family or tribe, matters can become worse. In this case, her husband's family will usually lay their claim to her children. They will insist that her children be given to them to be raised in the husband's family, rather than under a new father from a different family. The intensity of harrassment now becomes very heated, and often leads to violence.
So in all but the rarest of situations, a widow remains a widow. Remarriage is simply way too costly.

It should be noted that as of the writing of this article, Kenya is working to enact new laws to protect a woman from the loss of property when her husband dies. The proposed law will attempt to keep the possession of land, home, and other property in the hands of the widow. If this passes, it will certainly make a huge difference. However, the passage of a law will not bring about an instant change in tribal culture. Widows may gain every right to keep home, land, and possessions. But family pressures from long-held traditions will be very slow to die out. The new law will only be a first step.

After starting a widow's care by ministering to her spiritual needs, the biggest issues to deal with are these tribal traditions of marriage, custody, and ownership. When her husband passes away, a woman stands to lose literally everything, and is faced with very poor prospects for survival. In most cases, the only options are physical labour or prostitution. Sometimes these go together. If a woman wants to get a job, sometimes the only way for a widow to gain employment is to agree to relations with the employer. Without the protection of a husband, she becomes easy prey to those who would take every advantage

The answer, of course, is to get her past these issues. We start with a woman's spiritual needs. We join her with other Christian widows in her area. As part of a spirit-filled fellowship, she learns she is not alone. She is lifted up and encouraged. One of the primary goals of this fellowship is to restore her joy in Jesus Christ and fill her up with the Holy Spirit. Without this, she cannot begin to take on the economic issues she faces. This is one vital resource we help to provide with our support. We raise up and train leaders in the church, and leaders among the widows, to make this vital first step possible.

Then we work to find how she can gain a comfortable standard of living. Again, she teams with her group to find creative ways to support herself, individually or in partnership with other widows. We work to provide resources to the group so they can accomplish their economic goals as well as meet their spiritual needs.

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