Ghana: Ashanti widow rituals, steps required, whether the widow can refuse to participate, whether she would be required to marry her husband's relative, and consequences for refusal
|Publisher||Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada|
|Author||Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada|
|Publication Date||7 May 2002|
|Citation / Document Symbol||GHA38600.E|
|Cite as||Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ghana: Ashanti widow rituals, steps required, whether the widow can refuse to participate, whether she would be required to marry her husband's relative, and consequences for refusal, 7 May 2002, GHA38600.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3df4be3520.html [accessed 22 July 2017]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, the executive director of MATCH International, a non-governmental organization that works with women in developing countries in Africa and Latin and Central America, based in Ottawa, stated that among the Ashanti, as in other ethnic groups in Ghana, women are expected to observe rituals such as being secluded in the dark during the period of mourning, bathing in cold water, and abstaining from eating certain foods (23 Apr. 2002). She also stated that widows are usually harassed by their husbands' relatives, who may disinherit the them and their children (ibid.). She said that although in theory, widows have some recourse under the law, in practice, whether a woman accesses the legal system depends on ethnicity, class, age, and her family's social status (ibid.).
The following information on widowhood rites in general may be of interest. A report on gender issues in Ghana prepared for the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, in Brighton, UK, states that:
Widows are often expected under customary law to undergo lengthy periods of mourning (of up to one year) whereas widowers generally only observe mourning for a few days. There may be restrictions on their movements, the imposition of food taboos and subjection to various forms of humiliation and abuse. ... Whilst these practices are traditionally considered as a form of rehabilitation, "some of the practices involved are cruel, degrading and traumatic for the victims and amount to a denial of their rights" (UNECA, 1984: 7). They may also prevent women from engaging in normal economic activities and thus may cause considerable hardship. Bortei-Dorku (1990) reports that (as of 1990) the Law Reform Commission was considering legislation to abolish or restrict widowhood rites.
Older women members of extended families or communities have been known to be savegely brutalised and murdered, often on the basis of accusations of witchcraft (Ampofo, 1993) (Baden et al. Jan. 1994).
According to a report published by Empowering Widows in Development (EWD) on the situation of widows in Ghana,
what determines the widow's future is how tradition is interpreted at the local level. The practices of communities which are mainly traditionalist and muslim are the most severe on widows. ...
Among the Northern tribes the widows are required to stay indoors sitting together if there are several widows, alone if there is only one. The widows are stripped naked, with only leaves on their private parts, and must sit on a reed mat, for days or even weeks. They must hold a calabash (symbol of a dead husband) any time that they leave the hut.
Widows may not cook, and must eat and drink only from a special bowl or calabash to avoid polluting others. The corpse of the dead man is put in another part of the hut and the widow can only visit it in the company of an old lady.
After the burial, and once the cause of death has been established by a soothsayer, the widows are led out naked and made to drink a special brew. They have to wash in a designated place, usually a little used area where rubbish is thrown. Then their heads are shaved. The funeral ceremonies can be over in three days but many last weeks, months or even years depending on the wealth of the relatives and how much money there is to be spent on rites.
Some of the mourning rites may include "ritual cleansing" through sex with designated individuals. These could be the "first stranger met on the road", or brothers-in-law, or the heir. These coercive acts and others such as scarification (scarring) with unclean instruments are life-threatening as well as degrading in the context of HIV/AIDS infection.
It is noteworthy that Ghana is the only country in the world that has attempted to eliminate degrading and harmful widows' mourning rites by legislation. The 1989 amendment to the Penal Code criminalises the acts of any person who compels a widow to undergo any custom or practice that is cruel, immoral, or grossly indecent.
But according to EWD's partner groups, no one has ever been arrested and brought to court under this law; it is difficult to see how an illiterate and marginalised rural widow could realistically use this amendment even if she was aware of it. However, the existence of the law provides leverage for action and possibilities in the future for some collective action. ...
Physical and mental violence, including sexual violence and rape, is a common accompaniment to the onset of widowhood. Sometimes as part of the mourning rite, or associated with some of the ceremonies (for example, having to sit naked, having to take off all clothing by the river, being left alone and destitute), widows are frequently vulnerable to extreme sexual abuse. ...
The mental anguish caused by such physical abuse, the sudden destitution, homelessness, starvation and insults leads a considerable number of widows to commit suicide. No research has been done to get an idea of numbers. A suicide of a widow is usually made to look like an accident.
After the funeral ceremony the widow is expected to choose which man will marry her. In practice she may have no real choice; if a man succeeds in sleeping with the widow he will tell a close relative and the man then takes the widow as his wife. Any children she bears him will be the children of the dead husband. This is what is called a "levirate" union.
In the Bolga district (where much of our information comes from) widows of fertile age who are forced to continue to produce children in the name of the dead husband for the "levir" often find themselves abandoned once they have given birth. They are at the mercy of the levir's other wife or wives. They might say, as they did to one informant " You have killed your husband. Now you wish to kill mine".
The Widows' Ministry (MOW), a Christian welfare organisation in Bolga reports that so many widows are left caring for children conceived in this way that they are unable to adequately care and feed them all. Many widows faced with this situation turn to begging or prostitution. Or they are forced to abandon their babies and those small children who are too young to beg. The MOW also writes that sometimes unscrupulous relatives offer to take the children and send them to school, but they then exploit them as unpaid cattle-herders. ...
Widowhood itself makes daughters vulnerable to very early marriage. The MOW reports that quite destitute widows find themselves searching for husbands for their young girls so as to acquire bridewealth of cattle.
The future for a very young widow is very bleak.
Widows are generally regarded as bringing bad luck. They are frequently accused of having used witchcraft to kill their husbands. A woman surviving her husband is suspect, and to avoid such suspicion she must demonstrate her grief and penance by wearing special clothes, avoiding people and all social occasions such as weddings and parties. Friends shun her because she poses a threat: she could cast an evil spell on them, destroy their children or cattle. She must be avoided at all costs.
Relations may allege she is a prostitute, or not the proper wife – these are tactics to avoid the responsibility of supporting her. This reaction is often the result of the widow refusing the levirate or remarriage with one of the husband's male relatives. It is not just a question of men against women, but of mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law uniting in their bitterness that a wicked woman has deprived them of a son or a brother.
A Christian Minister reported that one young widow, unable to bear the jibes and accusations locked herself in a room with her baby. When someone eventually forced open the door he found she had hanged [herself]. The baby was still alive, and was trying to suck from the dead mother's breast, she having fallen from the hook where she had tied her dress. He said that other Christian widows who refuse to follow harmful and degrading mourning rites or take another man from the male relatives are accused of pride and labelled as witches.
As explained above, few widows, especially those in the rural areas, dare attempt to get their problems resolved through the courts, or to apply for relief through the social welfare agencies. In one reported case the in-laws murdered a widow after she complained to a human rights lawyer that her brother-in-law had sold all her husband's land on which she depended on for food. ...
Prostitution is often the only means of survival, but these widows often die early from HIV/AIDS and the opportunistic illnesses associated with this infection. TB is a big problem. Widows never have sufficient cash to buy medicines or follow a healthy diet. Widows tend not to seek medical help because the drugs have to be paid for and they cannot meet the hospital bills ... (n.d.).
Empowering Women in Development is a United Kingdom-based "nonprofit, unincorporated development and advocacy organization. It is managed by a Board of
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
Baden, Sally, Cathy Green, Naana Otoo-Oyortey and Tessa Peasgood. January 1994. Background Paper on Gender Issues in Ghana: Report Prepared for the West and North Africa Department, Department of Overseas Development (DFID), Brighton, UK. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK.
Empowering Widows in Development. n.d. "Ghana."
[Accessed 12 Apr. 2002]
MATCH International. Ottawa. 23 April 2002. Telephone interview with executive director.
Additional Sources Consulted
Africa Research Bulletin.
Resource Centre. Country File
Internet sites including:
All Africa News
Human Rights Watch
Search engines including: