Does marital status matter? Support, personal autonomy and economic power among Abaluyia widows in Kenya

  • Maria G. Cattell Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Millersville University and The Field Museum of Natural History, USA


This article considers issues of personal and economic power among African women in regard to their marital situation. Since marriage is usually crucial to young African women's gaining access to resources, in later life does marital status matter? Are widows worse off than wives, as is the situation of widows in much of the world? A brief description of widowhood worldwide is followed by material from research among older Abaluyia women in Kenya, among whom widowhood offers advantages which today are leading some Abaluyia women to choose widowhood over remarriage. Finally, the discussion is broadened to a consideration of widows in other sub-Saharan African countries. While some African women's situation becomes precarious with the loss of a husband, others prefer not to be married, for a variety of reasons relating to personal autonomy and control of resources and also because in general security in old age depends more on other kin, especially sons, than on husbands. Thus it seems that while marital status matters among older African women, the status preferred may be that of widow (or in some places retired" wife), when widowhood results in the empowerment of the widow and does not threaten her personal security.


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