Rescuing widows from the wilderness

2012-05-11 00:00

CHALLENGES that face widows in society have prompted the emergence of a formidable women’s advocacy group called Izwi labafelokazi — the Voice of the Widows  — based in Pietermaritzburg.

 

Izwi chairperson Ntombintombi Mtshare from Imbali Stage 2, says the organisation, which was formally launched in 2010, now has well over 3 400 members who take part in its 22 community-based job-creation projects that are run as co-operatives.

The co-operatives are involved in projects such as poultry farming, making blocks, soap, cleaning liquid, cough mixture and fruit juice, as well as providing catering services for schools, the latter which is due to start soon with the backing of the provincial Department of Education.

But how did this advocacy and job-creation initiative for widows begin? Mtshare, who is also a widow and a self-employed single parent of four children, recalls: “It was in 2009 when one woman’s husband died and her inheritance was overtaxed.

“We brought the matter to the attention of a prominent leader of the ANC Women’s League, Barbara Thomson, and subsequent to that it was resolved that an organisation to take care of widows should be formed.

“We were to launch the organisation at the Edendale Lay Centre in October 2010.”

Talking to Mtshare reveals that widows often face stressful situations following spousal loss, as well as the harsh, abusive treatment they get from others as they grieve.

“As a widow, it is not only society that abuses you, even your own in-laws tend to create lots of problems for you. For starters, they may think you are the one who killed your husband, and they want to take over your house, possessions and money,” she says.

Izwi has encountered and supported poor and sickly widows who live with HIV and Aids amid malnutrition or a complete absence of food, coupled with unhygienic living conditions.

“At the moment we have two families with 11 and 13 members, which are supported by Absa Bank through our organisation. The bank gives them groceries on a monthly basis,” she says.

Mtshare’s organisation is in ongoing consultation with provincial government departments that are relevant to its line of work, including the departments of Social Development, Health, Women, Children and Disability and the Office of the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal.

Mtshare says: “We are happy that the MEC for Social Development in our province is a woman. We are glad that Khabazela [Premier Zweli Mkhize] moved Weziwe Thusi from Arts and Culture to Social Development, and we cannot wait for a woman-to-woman session with her.”

Mkhize’s KZN provincial Parliament has already received a petition from Izwi labafelokazi detailing the challenges and stumbling blocks that widows face.

The petition reads: “The problems of widowhood within the family are characterised by the dispossession of property, deprivation of means of production, and the ultimate expulsion from the family to which you were married or the absence of a sense of belonging.”

According to the affected women, society stigmatises widowhood, excludes widows from being part of community activities and holds them in perpetual suspicion for no reason.

The petition reads: “Widows have no voice in the government in terms of protection by legislation [and this would seem undeserved] considering the vulnerable position the widows find themselves in. The same is experienced in places of worship — to such an extent that widowhood is castigated.”

Mtshare says that members of her organisation would like the government of KwaZulu-Natal to legislate on their rights as single parents, particularly on matters pertaining to securing the rights of their children to a decent or acceptable roof over their heads, such as subsidised housing and education and health care.

Other issues that have been taken up with the provincial legislature include the need to legislate and regulate on cultural matters which deprive the widows of their rights, such as pre-burial arrangements which tend to be unjust and oppressive, the role and impact of patriarchy on widows, matrimonial repercussions for widows and the impact of bereavement vestments.

“The widows are proposing that consideration be made in terms of how SARS taxes the widows and that recalculation of bond repayments be made by financial institutions when a person is widowed,” says Mtshare. “And that the circumstances of widows should be considered regarding rates, water, electricity and other social services.

“Also, an indigent policy which is sensitive to the situation and status of widowhood be put in place, as well as the issue of deserving widows qualifying for pension grants before the age of 60,” she adds.

Some of the most important issues that Izwi is raising with the government include being afforded the opportunity, due to their peculiar status, to compete in tender processes in the interest of their socio-economic empowerment. They would like their social and economic projects to be protected from unfair competition.

Besides requiring skills transfer, they also wish to have operational outlets provided for their business, including the organisation’s office space, and suitable work stations for co-operatives.

Izwi targets women from all over the province of KwaZulu-Natal and it is challenging government to a symposium in which it wishes to engage in dialogue on its vision and mission.

I was only 14 years old when my mother became a widow and as her last-born child, I spent a lot of time with her.

I remember that for her to have a male companion was difficult because she had three sons who were quite protective of her. I was a liberated thinker, so my mother’s boyfriend did not bother me because I thought she was lonely.

I also remember my annoyed mother telling a debt collector who was looking for a monthly instalment, that my late father owed the money for a kitchen stove he bought for us before he died, and to go and dig him up and ask for the money. That was the last day the debt collector came to our house.

A better life for widows would amount to achieving a better life for all. The majority of mothers — widows or not — are primary caregivers with a heavy burden. They have to take care of the needs of their children and often their children’s children as well.

 

• Simphiwe Mkhize is a government spokesperson who writes in his personal capacity. Mtshare can be reached at 083 982 2846.

 

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