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COVID steals husbands, homes, futures from African widows

UMUIDA, Nigeria –

When Anayo Mbah gave birth to her sixth child, her husband was battling COVID-19 at another hospital across town. Jonas, a young motorbike taxi driver, was put on resuscitation after he started coughing up blood.

Jonas will never meet his daughter, Chinaza. A few hours after the birth, Mbah’s sister-in-law called to say that he had passed away. Staff at the hospital in Nigeria immediately asked Mbah and the infant to leave. No one came to pay her bills.

Anayo begins the widow ritual at the house she lives in with her husband: shaved head and dressed in white. But just weeks after the traditional six-month mourning period, her late husband’s relatives stopped providing food, then confronted her face-to-face.

“They told me I’d better find my own way,” says Mbah, now 29. “They said even if I had to remarry, that I should. That the sooner I get out of the house, the better for me and my kids.”

She walked home to her mother’s house with only one plastic bag containing Chinaza’s belongings and her other children.

Across Africa, widowhood has long plagued many women – especially in the continent’s least developed countries, where medical facilities are scarce. Many widows are young, some married men are decades older. And in some countries, men often have more than one wife, leaving several widows when they die.

Now, the pandemic has produced an even larger number of widows on the continent, with African men more likely to die from the virus than women, and it has exacerbated the problems. problems they face. Women like Mbah say the pandemic has taken more of their lives than their husbands: When widowed, it cost them their large family, their home and their future.

This story is part of a year-long series on how the pandemic is affecting women in Africa, most profoundly in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Press Center’s European Development Press Grants program, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.

Once widowed, women are often persecuted and lose their inheritance rights. The law forbids many people from buying land or giving them only part of their spouse’s property. The brother-in-law can claim custody of the children. Other husbands refuse to have children and refuse to help, even when they are the family’s sole source of money and food. And young widows have no adult children to support them in impoverished, job-less communities.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, about 70% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths are in men, according to the Gender, Gender and COVID-19 Project data. Similarly, more than 70% of deaths in Chad, Malawi, Somalia and Congo are male, according to data from the project. Other countries may show similar trends but lack the resources to collect detailed data.

Experts say some widows are left with nothing while others are pressured to remarry their brother-in-law or have their contracts cut. Widows may begin to be abused by their husbands before their husbands are buried.

Egodi Blessing Igwe, of the WomenAid Collective, which has assisted thousands of widows with legal services and family mediation, says: “Some are seen as outcasts, accused of being responsible for what their husband’s death.

In the Congo, Vanessa Emedy Kamana had known her husband for a decade before he proposed. She has worked for the scholar as a personal assistant. By the time their friendship turned romantic, Godefroid Kamana was in his late 60s; she, a single mother in her late 20s.

When he passed away, relatives went to the family home where Kamana had just begun a period of mourning. In general, widows are required to stay in their home and be able to receive guests. Mourning times vary by religion and ethnic group. Kamana, whose family is Muslim, was supposed to stay at home for 4 months and 10 days. But her husband’s relatives didn’t wait long enough to force her and her young son out into the street, revealing themselves on the night of his burial.

She fears her husband’s family will claim custody of her son, Jamel, whom Kamana has adopted and given him. In the end, the relatives did not, because the boy – now 6 years old – was not his biological son. However, they quickly moved to accumulate financial assets.

She and her son now live in a smaller house that her mother keeps as a rental property. Kamana sells second-hand clothes at a market. She initially received 40% of her late husband’s salary, which soon stopped altogether.

It’s painful, says Kamana, when her late husband’s relatives claim they’ve lost more than she has: “No one will ever be able to replace him.”

In West Africa, widowhood is particularly acute in large crowds, where many polygamous marriages occur. The first wife or her children often claim the family home and property.

Saliou Diallo, 35, said she would have been left with nothing after a decade of marriage if her husband hadn’t thought of naming her at home instead of his. Under Guinean law, a man with multiple wives shares a small percentage of his assets, with nearly all – 87.5% – belonging to his children.

Diallo’s husband, El Hadj, 74, built the house just for her and their 4-year-old daughter when he fell ill.

Diallo knew the burden of losing a partner: At 13, she became a second wife, only to be widowed at 20. After that, El Hadj had many wives but wanted to marry Diallo and raise her three children as his own.

They were together for a decade before the virus hit El Hadj. In his last conversations with his wife, he lamented that her house had no windows. That he hadn’t lived long enough to build a well so that she wouldn’t have to carry water on her head. That other relatives would try to drive her away once he was gone.

The family asked Diallo to provide the documents of the house that El Hadj had built for her. She provided copies but kept the originals secret.

Her extended family eventually helped raise money to install windows for her house. However, she still felt her husband’s absence. There is electricity, but no lights. She only has a few plastic chairs as furniture in her unpainted living room.

“I’m sure God is keeping a surprise for me. I surrendered to him,” she said. “I keep my faith.”

Larson also reported from Goma, Congo and Conakry, Guinea. Associated Press journalists Jerome Delay, Justin Kabumba and Moses Sawasawa in Goma, Congo, and Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, contributed.

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