Betty Nanozi, a Ugandan widow. Still from the video by Kathryn Carlson and Amy Toensing. Uganda, 2016.

Widows: Loss, Land, and the Law

  • Contributing Writer, National Geographic
  • Executive Director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Join us for a conversation with award-winning journalist Cynthia Gorney about her Pulitzer Center-supported National Geographic project, For Widows, Life After Loss.

Worldwide, there are about 259 million widows. Nearly half live in poverty. Even where laws protect their rights, widows are sometimes mistreated.

In Uganda, as in many other parts of the world, widowhood is a sentence to a life of misery. After her husband died, Betty Nanozi was robbed of everything she owned, twice. Her cow was beaten to death. Her land was forcefully taken from her.

Gorney will be joined by Pulitzer Center executive director Jon Sawyer. They will discuss both the field research behind her project—in India and Bosnia as well as Uganda—and how that reflects patterns of discrimination that are all too common across the globe.


Jon Sawyer kicked off the event by providing some background information on how the Pulitzer Center played a role in Cynthia Gorney’s project. For the past few years, the Pulitzer Center has focused on the issue of property rights. Sawyer outlined a few property rights projects the Pulitzer Center has worked on. The first deals with the global trend of creating charter cities known as “corporate utopias.”  The second involves aerial drone reporting to show a new perspective on social development and land rights in burgeoning urban developments in India, Brazil, and China. Additionally, Sawyer spoke on how the Pulitzer Center has been pushing the concept of “data journalism,” where they work with local and international journalists on how to compile and encourage better record-keeping in developing areas of the world.

Cynthia Gorney, an award-winning journalist, came to speak on her National Geographic project, “For Widows, Life After Loss.” Gorney prefaced her story by saying that there is a thick and complicated “braid” of legal issues surrounding widowhood. Gorney highlighted how she had run into similar cultural issues with a past project she had worked on regarding child marriage. The concept of child marriage is something that seemed clear and easy to condemn, but that after investigating and reporting on the issue Gorney saw how complicated a seemingly simple issue can be due to the entrenched cultural traditions associated with it. With that, Gorney turned her focus to her travels in India and Uganda where she met women who had become widows and how widowhood had caused struggles for the rest of their lives.

Gorney chose to delve into widowhood in India first for a couple of reasons, she mentioned that there are roughly 259 million widows in the world, and that India seems to have the most widows in the world. Additionally, she noted that India is the second most populous country on earth with more languages than anywhere else, and because of this it is impossible to generalize any concept as representing all of India. Understanding that India is full of complexities, Gorney focused her project on North India since South India is, in many respects, the more modern of the two halves. After grounding the audience in a general location, Gorney laid out the concept of widowhood in India that states that when a woman’s husband dies her role as a woman has come to an end. Upon the death of a woman’s husband there are suddenly several cultural restrictions placed on the surviving widow: a woman must cut her hair, she is forbidden from wearing colored clothing, she is not allowed to eat spicy food, and she is no longer allowed to attend festivals or events of joy. Each of these is forbidden because they involve beauty, passion, or joy, all of which are concepts that are supposedly no longer a part of a widow’s life. Gorney quickly mentioned the practice of sati, which is where the widow will climb onto the pyre of her deceased husband to burn alongside him. While sati is banned in India, and is illegal to even be discussed, this custom is a perfect example of how, in certain Indian cultures, when a woman’s husband dies she loses all her worth.

The widow Gorney used as an example is a lady from Vrindavan, a temple city that is primarily dedicated to the Lord Krishna. Vrindavan has become a place where widows congregate because they have been exiled by their families. Gorney stated that in many cases the woman is literally driven to the city and dropped off in Vrindavan, or the widow is excluded, by no longer being allowed to eat or live in the same home as her family, to such an extent that she finds her own way to cities like Vrindavan. For her project Gorney recounted how she spent time with some of the widows and discussed some of the difficulties they face in their lives as widows. The widows told Gorney that many everyday activities suddenly became much more difficult. For example, just to get food the widows would have to wake up at the crack of dawn and journey through horrible road conditions to receive charity meals. After finishing their meals they had to sing and pray to Lord Krishna in order to continue to receive charity. Gorney took notice that while she was talking to all these widows there was a variety of ages present. There were women who ranged anywhere from 17 years old to well into their 90s. Gorney spoke of how when she spoke to one of the widows as to why she kept her hair so short the widow responded, “because it was his,” referring to her deceased husband.  This was important to Gorney. She noted that it’s easy to pass these traditions off as repressive practices that stem from a patriarchal system, but Gorney counters that to just say this is an oversimplification. In fact, it is often other women, even other widows, who pressure women to follow these customs.

Gorney then turned to another reason she went to India, to find people who were trying to change the situation for widows in India. Here Gorney discussed the fact that International Widows’ Day was founded by an Indian businessman through the United Nations. The goal of this day is to incorporate women back into society. Afterwards, Gorney mentioned the work of an organization within India that aims to accomplish the goal of International Widows’ Day. This organization aims to reincorporate widows into celebrations such as Diwali, a celebration focused on the use of color and fireworks to express joy. It was surprising to Gorney how difficult it was to get widows out to these events, and she took the opportunity to reemphasize how the culture plays such an important role in these types of situations.

Shifting location, Gorney addressed the Ugandan part of her project. In Uganda, when a woman becomes a widow it is common practice for her land to be taken away by members of her extended family. Often times, male members of the husband’s family will either require the widow to marry one of them, or to face eviction from her deceased husband’s land. In her speech Gorney remarked on the fact that Uganda is a primarily agricultural society, so owning land provides an individual a way in which they can provide for themselves and their family. With that background, Gorney described her first experience with Uganda, driving past small homes on rutted out roads. Then, a tale of how a woman was treated immediately upon her husband’s death was recounted, and sure enough it involved the males in that family convening and deciding, without the woman’s consent, which would marry her. The woman was then approached three separate times by men who said they were going to marry her. After the third time, the woman was forced to return to living with her mother to prevent these men from accosting her further.

Gorney shared a video of Ugandan women’s experiences dealing with the difficulties of being a widow. The video focused on Betty Nanozi who was widowed just after giving birth to her child. Upon the husband’s death Nanozi’s stepchildren came and took all her belongings. Nanozi recounts how after this she had nothing to eat, much less any money to replace her stolen belongings. The actions of her stepchildren returned Nanozi and her son to a life of poverty. Gorney reiterated how Nanozi’s story is not uncommon in Uganda.  1 in 3 Ugandan women end up losing their homes, and on top of that over 50% of land grabbing situations involve acts of violence. While the Ugandan government has tried to protect women through the law, the cultural norms of Uganda are so rooted in people’s daily lives that people choose to follow them instead of the laws of Uganda.

After the video, Gorney laid out certain complexities that are associated with the Ugandan system. First, there are multiple ways for property to be held in Uganda. There are at least four systems of marriage within Uganda: a Christian church wedding (which involves only a single spouse), customary marriage (which involves the buying of gifts for the family she is taken from), Muslim marriages, and long term cohabitation. Gorney focused on how the practice of customary marriage reinforces the idea that women are unable to own property because the husband has “purchased” the woman for himself, so she herself is property meant to serve the man.

Gorney recounted arriving in an area just after a husband had died where the decedent’s relatives came in, and while the ceremonial mourning fire was still burning the relatives threw the widow’s possessions into the fire, destroyed her dining room, threatened her with machetes, and said it was her duty to either have a relationship with one of the brothers or to leave because they now owned the land. While there is a lawyer who is going to help this widow, it is complicated by the fact that there are 36 siblings who are fighting over this piece of land. Additionally, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that none of the involved parties trust the court system, and they would rather handle the dispute through their own customs.

Gorney ended her talk by saying she has put forth a lot of faith in young Ugandans who are doing work to assist widows. She recounted that it was encouraging that the Ugandans she met were outraged at how widows were being treated. However, young Ugandans still seem tied to the idea of “bride prices.” In India, the treatment of widows has become a source of national shame. It is written up in the newspapers, and young Indians seem to agree with the idea that Indian custom regarding widows is wrong. However, since cultural traditions are so difficult to unravel, Gorney argued, it must be left to the people of these countries to address these complex issues.

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