This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
About one million American women become widowed each year. For many of us who have been there, it was a singular, searing experience.
But we are the lucky ones: In many parts of the world, losing one’s husband is about much more than coping with grief, loneliness, or financial upheaval. A husband’s death may plunge a woman into a state of widowhood—enforced by cultural, social, or legal bonds—she cannot leave. Widows are cast out. Their possessions, their land, and even their children can be taken from them.
Photographer Amy Toensing, with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, has publicized widows’ plight since she first shot the story in India in 2005. For this article we sent Toensing and writer Cynthia Gorney back to India, as well as to Uganda and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to continue the project.
They went, as Gorney writes, to understand “the way societies can force a jarring new identity on a woman whose husband has died: pariah, exile, nuisance, martyr, prey.” Toensing and Gorney found that story—but they also found women of incredible strength fighting generations of repressive tradition.
In Uganda, after Clare Tumushabe’s husband died, his relatives told her that they were taking her six children and the land where she grew her family’s food—and that she would become the third wife of her husband’s oldest brother.
To summarize Tumushabe’s answer: no way. She worked with a legal team from a U.S.-based nonprofit called International Justice Mission to make sure Uganda’s laws, which prohibit exactly this behavior, were enforced. It was a long and ugly battle, but today Tumushabe has her children and home and isn’t in a forced marriage. One of the men who attacked her went to jail.
“I believe that there is hope,” said Alice Muhairwe Mparana, a lawyer who aided Tumushabe. “We are not 100 percent there, but we have begun.” On behalf of the 259 million widows around the world, these are heartening words indeed.