When I greet Mamissi, she tells me, “Whatever will not kill me will make me stronger.” She says this every time I visit. Today she tells me about the latest milestone in her battle to get back the savings her late husband had in anjangi, which is a small informal association of friends who put funds together to support one another.
Mamissi is trying to put the pieces of her life together after the death of her husband. The past few months have been filled with tears. She sometimes cries to me in despair, “If you have not lived it, you can’t understand!”
This statement took me back several months to the day my husband drove our family car into a heavy, speeding truck. The news that he had died spread rapidly.
For a short time—which felt like eternity—I felt so vulnerable, so lost, so helpless. I pictured the traditions and rituals that awaited my children and me, the hardships I was about to endure. Fortunately for me, my husband had not died. He was in shock, but not dead!
During the brief time I thought I had been widowed, I had the opportunity to mentally review the hurdles and challenges young widows face in my community. I thought about how horrible it is to be emotionally, psychologically, and financially disadvantaged all at once.
My heart is drawn to the thousands of women who, like Mamissi, did not have the luck I had. They face the emotional and psychological trauma of losing their husbands, and then they often lose support from family and society as well. In Cameroon, many believe the death of a young man is always someone’s fault, usually the wife’s fault.
A widow might be forced to drink a poisonous beverage to prove her innocence (It is said that if the widow drinks and dies, then she killed her husband). It’s fashionable now to accuse widows of being witches. Other harmful practices include making a widow walk naked around the village for days or weeks, or obligating her to marry the deceased husband’s relative.
Mamissi, like many widows, is young, poor, and illiterate. At the young age of 25, she lost her husband and faced raising her three children on her own. She says that giving up now would betray the life she and her husband dreamed of for their family. Continuing the journey without him is hard, she tells me, but she is willing to take up the challenge.
There are many Mamissis in Cameroon. Boko Haram terrorist acts have added to the numbers. So have the young people who who are dying in large numbers as they attempt to get to Europe via Libya and then cross the Mediterranean Sea in boats and canoes. The government has not released statistics on the prevalence of widows, but according to organizations that attend to these women—places of worship, public offices, NGOs, community groups—the numbers are shockingly high.
Testimonies from Mamissi and others confirm reports from community organizations that Cameroonian authorities and UN agencies are doing very little to meet the needs of young widows.
Additionally, when women appeal to family members or to companies for help—capital to start an income generating activity, for example—they are often rejected in the name of gender equality. Equality, in this case, is interpreted as being capable of caring for themselves and their children without help.
These are the challenges I see every day in my work with widows. Our organization, the Security, Education and Care Network for Empowerment and Transformation (SECNET-DEV’T), desires to see more comfort, compassion, and support for widows—especially those with little children. Our goal is for women to be listened to, supported, cared for, and empowered to make life beautiful for themselves and for their communities.
Widows have value. They can contribute to a better community life, and their children look to them for education, food, shelter, and dreams for the future. My heart cries out each time I see the opportunities widows are denied.
Many positive decisions have been made by the government in support of widows. International Widows Day has been observed every year since its inception in 2005. A department specifically dedicated to vulnerable women, including widows, was created under the Ministry of Women Affairs. In the new penal code of Cameroon, rituals that widows are subjected to after the death of their husbands that violate their human rights are now punishable by fines and imprisonment. The frameworks are there, but little has been implemented.
Concrete actions and tangible solutions are weakened by societal rules that remain in place. These cultural norms can get in the way of the protection, security, and empowerment these women need. A widow, for example, is dependent on her husband’s family for decisions concerning the future. She can be prevented from inheriting property and the property she acquires herself can be taken away from her.
From experience, I know that when widows have opportunities, they can make a significant difference for themselves, their families, and the environment. These women are potential social change advocates and implementers, as well as advisers for the next generation.
Because widows have lived the nightmare of loss due to various causes, they are more likely to get involved in efforts to eradicate these causes of death.
And, I have seen widows deeply engaged in our violence-free curriculum that teaches children the values of tolerance and mutual acceptance. We hope this curriculum will work to ease terrorism recruitment in the long term.
Our organization aims to help widows with the problems they face now, while also prioritizing advocacy with traditional leaders to help shift cultural norms in their favor.
Today, when I speak with Mamissi about her attempts to recover her husband’s savings, her eyes have already told me that something positive has happened. What a change! Her smile comes from her success in accessing her husband’s savings and starting a livestock business.
Mamissi is completing a training and has found a good place to rent for her business. The financial assistance from SECNET-DEV’T and the savings from her husband’s njangi will help expand the business. Her new skills have helped build her confidence, and she has so many ideas to move forward.
Widows are doing all they can to piece their lives together following devastating loss. I stand by them and am committed to helping give these women reasons to smile.
Elvire Kenmegne is a contributor from Cameroon. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.