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Alternative rituals of widow cleansing in relation to women’s sexual rights in Zambia.

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One cannot understand the alternative rituals of widow cleansing without having a full understanding of the ritual of widow cleansing itself. Widow cleansing is a ritual which demands a widow to have sexual intercourse with another man, normally one of her brothers-in-law in order to let the spirit of the deceased rest in peace among the dead. The rationale behind this ritual is the belief that the spirit of the deceased husband still recognizes the widow as his wife, hence interfering with any relationship the widow might establish. The ritual of widow cleansing was however challenged by various groups especially at the dawn of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Through increased awareness about the HIV and AIDS malady and its widespread effects on human health, communities in Zambia have adopted alternative cleansing rituals to cleanse widows without the act of sexual intercourse. While many scholars have hailed the alternative rituals to the extent of encouraging them, the question about women’s sexual rights seem to have been ignored. Studies have shown that although the alternative rituals do not involve sexual contact, some of them are done in a manner that comprise the sexual rights of women. The disregards for and of women’s sexual rights causes the marginalization and denial of their social, political and economic rights. This thesis explores the alternative rituals of widow cleansing in relation to women’s sexual rights in Zambia. In this light, the study draws attention to the fact that women in Zambia are born and nurtured in the context of African culture and as such possess rights to live in a society that does not oppress or discriminate against them. Thus, it asserts that the government and citizens of Zambia have an obligation to make sure that women are not subjected to any traditional practices that undermine their sexual rights. However, the study recognizes that despite the presence of laws and legal structures aimed to protect the rights of women in Zambia, their lack of implementation especially in rural areas continue to be a challenge to women’s rights. Besides this, the study notes that since cleansing rituals have been practiced for a long time in Zambia and are embedded in the cultures of people, they cannot just be addressed through legislation. The most suitable way of addressing such practice is through education, negotiation and dialogue. This strategy for redress as proposed by this study is rationalized on the basis that negotiation comprises the process of compromise, which is give and take, and is inclusive of the local people in the dialogues and context of problem solving and the practice of cleansing rituals that contravenes the rights of women. Likewise, negotiation gives room to cultural transformation where men and women can live in communities free of practices that are not life-giving to women.


Master of Art in Gender and Religion. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2016.


Widow cleansing., HIV/AIDS., Women sexual rights., Alternative rituals., Sexual rights., Cultural transformation.