Between 7 and 16 percent of all adult women worldwide are widows. Millions of widows of all ages endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, poor health, and discrimination.1 Some forms of violence against older women are based on cultural practices that specifically target widows, who are often regarded as insignificant without their husbands.2 A lack of inheritance or land rights, physical abuse, and humiliating and life-threatening mourning and burial rituals are some of the human rights violations justified by some traditions. A widow may be forced to endure sitting with her husband’s body until he is buried and drinking the water used to cleanse it, surrendering all rights to her husband’s property to his family, being taken as a wife by her husband’s brother (who may have other wives), or being forced to have unprotected sex with a social outcast to cleanse her of the husband’s spirit.
Sandrine* and her husband, Patrice*, lived happily in a village in Cameroon. They both considered each other equals in marriage and had joint ownership of their many financial assets. Sadly, Patrice died in a tragic car accident in 2003, leaving behind his wife and three young children. After his death, Patrice’s family designated an elder to make decisions on the next steps for the widow and her children. Sandrine was told to marry Patrice’s younger brother, Armand*.
The marriage to Armand would have been polygamous, as he already had two wives. When Sandrine refused, his family was enraged and ordered her to marry him because they had already paid a “dowry price” for her and thus had ownership over her. Armand threatened to kill Sandrine and her children if she did not marry him. A few days after Patrice’s funeral, his family placed a snake in her house and threw eggs on her car. Sandrine left her home and took her children to her aunt’s home to hide.
Sandrine finally had to flee Cameroon and came to the United States with a tourist visa, issued for a vacation she had planned with her husband before he died. Tahirih, with support from Perkins Coie, LLP, successfully represented Sandrine’s case and she was granted asylum on August 28, 2004. Unfortunately, because of legal difficulties, Sandrine continues to be separated from her children who, fearful of continued threats from Armand, remain in hiding, under the care of a maternal cousin.
1UN Division for the Advancement of Women, Women 2000, Widowhood: invisible women, secluded or excluded. (December 2001): 2.
2Jeaane Ward, “Abuse of older women: Part 2,” Broken bodies—broken dreams; violence against women exposed, UN Publications Pap/Com edition, July 2006, http://brokendreams.wordpress.com/tag/elderly-abuse/.
*Client’s name has been changed to protect privacy.