Widows: Facing life after death of the family breadwinner

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The death of a spouse leaves many women with the sole responsibility of taking care of the family. (Net photos)

It hasbeen three hard years since Jeanine Mukabacondo lost her husband Patrick Kanyamibwa in a motor accident. 

After six years of courtship, the couple walked down the aisle in 2012 and had a child not long after. They had only been married for two years when the tragic incident happened.

Only 29 years old at the time, Mukabacondo was left all alone and the dreams they had together were gone. Grief-stricken, she was numb and life was meaningless all of a sudden. She couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the man she loved with all her heart, the one they shared thoughts and dreams with, was gone and would never come back. 

Though widowed at a young age, Mukabacondo’s spirit to preserve her husband’s legacy kept her alive. She has to stay strong for her family.

The death of a loved one is unbearable, and it is easy for one to fall apart when that happens.

June 23 marks the International Widows Day, a day that was set aside to recognise widows and the hardships they go through.

In the aftermath of losing a spouse, who in most cases is a breadwinner in the family, many women are left to solely fend for their families.

Some have to put up with heartless in-laws, abject poverty; some become victims of social injustice, or endure endless conflicts, among other issues.

According to The Global Widows Report 2015, there is an estimated 22,153,905 widows in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Some of the widows of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi helped by AVEGA.  

In Rwanda, many widows are survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Statistics from the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA Agahozo) indicate that over 25,000 widows were registered immediately after the massacre.

Valerie Mukabayire, the president of Avega Agahozo, and a widow herself, describes the pain of losing a spouse as that which brings enormous sadness and emptiness.

“Losing a husband encompasses a lot of things, you find yourself alone in a way. The emptiness digs a void so deep that you wonder if you will ever feel whole again,” she says.

“Some people tend to think that losing a husband mainly means losing financial support but even those who are rich are devastated because it goes beyond that. But women are always resilient, one works twice as hard to maintain the dignity of her family,” Mukabayire says. 

In the organisation, Mukabayire says that the widows are provided with both financial and emotional support. They are provided with access to health services; they construct for them houses, especially the elderly ones.  Others are given training to gain skills to engage in income generating activities and are urged to join cooperatives.

This way, they have managed to survive and have turned out strong and their families are on a firm ground.  Yes, challenges still prevail, as the president points out, and most are related to economic and social factors.

“ I can’t say we have done away with all the challenges, it is still a work in progress and we want to keep on transforming the lives of these women and so far with the achievements we have attained, more will surely be done,” she says.

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Genocide widows are helped to reintegrate back into society following the trauma they faced. 

Coping with life as a widow

Therese Mugorewera, one of the beneficiaries of AVEGA, recalls that after losing her husband, life became so hard that the future seemed more of a haze. Her days and nights turned into moments of weeping, she hated her present and resented the thought of her future.

“The death of my husband was so sudden to me, I know it was the Genocide but I didn’t expect him to leave me, at least not that soon. I was alone and frightened. I fell into depression till I joined this organisation,” the 54-year-old narrates.

It’s been 22 years and Mugorewera is happy to say that she has moved on with life.

 “We share our stories and it has healed our hearts, the business skills we have been given have helped us progress.  Right now, I am a trained weaver with skills in crafts and through this, I earn a living,” she says.

They had spent 15 years together when Nurah Asiimwe’s husband passed on, she recalls going silent when she got the sad news and for a good number of hours, all she felt was detachment.

“The pain was so much that I couldn’t feel it anymore. I didn’t know what I was going to do, my husband was gone and that was the reality I had to face. It was hard, I felt like giving up but my children were left with only me to care for them,” she narrates.

Years later, the mother of three slowly started picking up the pieces of her life, she started a business, managed to construct houses for rent where she gets school fees for her little ones.

Anselme Rurangwa, the Director of Women Empowerment and Mobilisation at the National Women Council, says that each year, the council takes it upon itself to commemorate widows of the Genocide and the children who passed on.

He says that it is through such a platform that opportunities are raised to reach out to them.

“Widows are among the vulnerable groups and as a women council; we do mobilisation and advocacy for them with the aim of seeing them live a better life. We do this by approaching our partners who can help donate and render support in various forms,” Rurangwa says.

He says that they offer financial support to the widows and that they also provide trainings in different forms.

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AVEGA has put in place income generating activities to address the needs of the members.

“Our mandate is to do advocacy for women, and we do this by reaching out to our various partners. But also on the village, we get to use platforms such as Umugoroba w’ababyeyi where women get a chance to address the challenges they are facing, we not only help widows but all women in general who are facing challenges,” he adds.

Pamela Mudakikwa, the Communications Officer at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, says that support towards widows is mostly rendered through organisations that have direct interaction with the widows such as AVEGA.

“We also ensure to take part and contribute towards all the programmes they have in regards to empowering widows in the country. We believe that continued participation of widows in social protection schemes can also be of great help,” Mudakikwa says.

How can widows be helped to sustain their families?

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Bamuzimire

There are those who are strong and those who are not, for example the elderly, these need direct help by getting someone to do almost everything for them. Those who are still strong and have, let’s say, a business, can be offered training and access to loans to support their business. Those who are strong but with no income can also be offered the same.

Adela Bamuzimire, Accountant

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Ndagijimana

In terms of income generation, since many widows are elderly, I think starting up small businesses for them, of course those that they can easily manage, can be of help. The kind of business set up should consider where they live, whether in rural or urban areas, as this will be in line with the target market. This will be better than them staying at home feeling hopeless about the future.

Theogene Ndagijimana, Administrative Assistant

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Kayihura

More organisations should come up and fend for the rights of these vulnerable women. Widows go through a lot and at times lose rights to their husband’s property which would help in taking care of the family.

Felix Kayihura, Lawyer

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Umutoni

They should be empowered with awareness and training on issues like legal rights. They can also be given services that help them access loans for setting up businesses.

Lovence Umutoni, Pharmacist