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Malawi fights 'wife inheritance'.

Southern African countries such as Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa have the highest number of HIV cases in the world. The virus continues to spread rapidly in the region with Malawi having over 20 percent HIV prevalence among women attending ante-natal clinics.

Factors such as cultural norms, values, beliefs and myths have been cited as the main catalysts in the spread of HIV, particularly the common practice of wife inheritance, which entails a brother or relative of the deceased marrying the widow to sustain and carry on the family name. The practice is known as chokolo in Malawi; in Ngoni, Ndebele and Zuhi it is called ukungena while in Shona it is called kugara nhaka.

35-year-old Nasibeko lost her husband, Chilazi some five years ago and was inherited by his younger brother. "After the death of nay husband, the family held meetings in adherence to tradition. I was presented with my husband's belongings (knobkierrie and axe) and asked to place them before the brother whom I chose to succeed my husband to take care of me and my children," explains Nasibeko. In a solemn ritual, Nasibeko placed the stuff and passed a dish of water to Esitedi, her late husband's young brother, to inherit her. Although Esitedi was married, he accepted and now takes care of Nasibeko and her children. They also have a child together in this relationship.

The practice aims to provide means and support for the widow and her children in the absence of the husband. However, this traditional practice is becoming risky in the face of Aids because it involves sex. One partner could be infected with HIV and this has major implications for the spread of the disease.

For example, if the late husband's cause of death was Aids-related, the wife inheritor is at risk of contracting HIV if the couple engages in unprotected sex. He could also infect his wife. In a case where the brother inheriting the widow is already infected, he can pass HIV on to the widow if she was not infected, or re-infect her if she is already infected. Wife inheritance therefore exposes both the widow and the brother-in-law to HIV infection.

As President Bakili Muluzi has rightly put it on several occasions, time has come for Malawi to do away with some archaic cultural practices. "We should do away with all cultural practices that promote the spread of HIV and Aids."

The main problem in Malawi is that the cause of death is not discussed openly and people are left to hint in private about this, particularly if it is Aids-related. The culture of silence and denial, stigma, blame and shame has been an impediment to efforts aimed at changing people's attitudes and behaviour, especially with regard to practices that are harmful.

Source: Brian Ligomeka, Malawi Standard, Blantyre
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Author:Ligomeka, Brian
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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