The Widows and Orphans Movement (WOM) was founded in the Upper East region of Ghana in 1993 by Betty Ayagiba who became widowed in 1988. She desired to create a safe space for widows to feel heard and understood.
Our Partner's Corner : Clinging To Straw Whiles Saving Others
The Widows and Orphans Movement (WOM) was founded in Bolgatanga, the Upper East region of Ghana in 1993 by Betty Ayagiba who became widowed in 1988. She desired to create a safe space for widows to feel heard and understood. A step that was necessary after Betty who was a nurse observed that widows who reported to the hospital were mostly suicidal and or presented with health challenges as a result of de-humanising widowhood rites and practices. These rites and practices involved some of these women being forced to take in unhygienic concoctions, raped, forced to re-marry, among others. Over the years, WOM has grown from an average of 100 widows reach during its formation to about 13,000 direct consistent reach receiving eight awards for defending the rights of women and children. Fati Abigail Abdulai, the current executive director of the movement, reflects on the progress made over the last 28 years and the challenges she still faces.
Article written by Fati Abigail Abdulai
Breaking down stereotypes
Widows are seen as ill-luck women, witches or bad women who have killed their spouses through their actions such as unfaithfulness, nagging, etc. Based on this, some sections of society ridiculed the then association of widows. Derogatory comments such as “widows too forming an association? How possible?” were made. Today some sections of society still accuse WOM of fuelling the desire of women wanting to kill or killing their husbands so that they can benefit from our programmes or assert their rights.
One time, one of our volunteers returned a fabric earmarked for the celebration of International widows’ day because her husband accused her of wanting to kill him so she could be part of the widow’s associations.
As an organisation, some chiefs and traditional councils have openly called us liars, asked us not to mobilise or engage widows within their communities in our programmes. It is said that WOM washes the dirty linen of communities in public by highlighting the ills of their rich traditions. Local government leaders in some instances have accused WOM of inciting the women against them and hence want nothing to do with us.
However, we continue to grow and adapt to the stumbling blocks by staying true to our feminist values. Women and men who hitherto stood against our work have become allies after the same organisation they were against supported them to seek justice when their rights were being violated.
A chief whose arrest was facilitated by WOM for tying and caning a widow for days because she refused to marry him, today is a strong advocate for women’ rights in his community.
Putting others first, always!
The staff of WOM who are male are accused of betraying men. They are referred to as women for being feminists. Females that are not married are told that no man will marry them if they do not resign from the job.
Our female staff who equally happen to be human rights defenders face more hurdles as compared to their male counterparts. Survivors of violence reach out to them at odd hours such as at night, on weekends, etc. for support. This is because survivors feel more comfortable confiding in them. After all, they trust them more than the state institutions responsible for promoting and fulfilling the rights of people. Some men sexually harass female human rights defenders even as they go about their work. Whiles others are blacklisted for staying true to the cause. One time, a duty bearer started to ignore some staff of WOM because they had reported a case to his higher authority after he failed to act even after several follow-ups on a case he was handling.
Female human rights defenders spend their time caring for others so much so that they tend to neglect their self-care. Ironically, the long hours of difficult work that is cut out for an exclusive few passionate individuals are not recognised in most instances as important work that should be adequately compensated. In other instances, lip service is paid to the work done by female human rights defenders with poor compensations and inadequate resources fuelled by some donor policies. This phenomenon has led to high turnover with human rights defenders having to make the difficult choice of following their passion or thinking of their survival and that of their families.
A never-ending mission
The work done by human rights defenders is a critical one. The work carried out by female human rights defenders is even direr because most survivors of violence are women and feel more comfortable seeking support from their fellow females than males. Women human rights organisations remain most relevant because they provide the training ground and the fuel for the rights of all especially women to be promoted and upheld. Defending the rights of the powerless is hard enough but Women’s rights organisations such as WOM have to fight for their survival as well.
Article by Fati Abigail Abdulai, Executive Director - WOM