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Sexual Cleansing in Zambia » Women's Courage

Sexual Cleansing in Zambia

January 31st, 2013 by kseiger Leave a reply »

Upon the death of a husband, for the Tonga women of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, a widow is “inherited” into her husband’s family and must participate in traditional inheritance practices that breach her right to protect her body, wellbeing, and future. The Tonga represent one million of Zambia’s 13.3 million person population.[2] Sexual cleansing—a major aspect of inheritance procedures— is a ritual among the Tonga in which widowed women are forced into sexual relations that are often unwanted. In order to rid herself of her late husband’s ghost, a widow must engage in sexual intercourse with a member of her late husband’s family. Sexual cleansing is also meant to prevent the woman from going insane should she have a future sexual partner.

The man who will participate in the sexual cleansing receives a cloth from his wife, which symbolizes her permission for him to have sexual intercourse with the widow. In the event the wife does not give permission, many men have been reported to steal a piece of cloth from his wife to present to the widow. On the morning after the man and widow perform the sexual cleansing, the relatives of both families come to the widow’s house. The man typically throws a match out of the window and makes the declaration, “this my home,” symbolizing the completion the ritual. The man, if single, often has the option to marry the widow should he so desire or keep her as a second wife.[1]

Similar to sexual cleansing, another encroachment on a widow’s rights is levirate marriage. A widow is often forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother in order to propagate the familial lineage. While this practice is less common today, it is still prevalent in the rural and impoverished areas of Zambia.

Sexual cleansing is a custom that is a severe breach of a woman’s sexual freedom. A woman has no choice on whether or not to participate in these traditional inheritance practices. Many women believe that if they do not participate, they will suffer an early death or go crazy. But others, like Theresa Chilala, 79-year-old woman in Zambia, feel otherwise. Chilala refused to participate in sexual cleansing after her husband’s death due to her Catholic faith and her fear of contracting HIV. Consequently, she was forced by her in-laws to evacuate her husband’s property and lose her livestock. For the next sixteen years, her in-laws buried the dead of their family on the widow’s property. When Chilala sought retaliation through part of the national justice system, Zambia’s Lands Tribunal, she lost the case as the court ruled in favor of customary practices.[2] The courts supported the in-laws decision to evict Chilala from her home, subject her to a life of poverty, and abuse her by creating a graveyard on her homestead. Four years later, a group of chiefs finally banned her in-laws from burying people on Chilala’s property.[3]

In addition to the infringement on women’s control of their bodies, this sexual practice leads to the spread of HIV in a country where 1 in 4 adults are already HIV positive.[4] The societal infrastructure impedes the woman’s ability to resist sexual cleansing or suggest condom use. This is the sad reality for Maria Moomba, a sixty-year-old widow in the Southern Province who had enjoyed a long and faithful relationship with her husband. After her husband passed away, she was forced to have sexual intercourse with his nephew, who infected her with HIV. “I tried to resist but I was powerless,” Moomba stated, likening the experience to having sex with a child.[5] In addition to not being able to afford antiretroviral drugs, Moomba’s fifteen herds of cattle were stolen by her in-laws, effectively eradicating her source of income. Property grabbing, where widows’ possessions are revoked by their in-laws, is reflective of a common view that widows are witches and corrupted with greed.

The practices that restrict a woman’s right to sexual freedom are imbedded in cultural tradition. In future blogs, I will discuss the legislation and education surrounding sexual cleansing as well as its future trajectory.

[1] Sexual Practices and Levirate Marriages in Mansa District of Zambia. Kalinda, Thomson. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. Volumeb 13. 23 March 2010. http://www.ejhs.org/volume13/leverite.htm

[2] Hambuba, Carlyn. Zambia: Widow defies ‘sexual cleansing’ custom. Women Living Under Muslin Laws. 26 Nov 2006. http://www.wluml.org/node/3363.

[3] Hambuba, Carlyn. Zambian Widow Defies Custom and Life Amid Graves . Women’s E-news. 26 November 2006. http://womensenews.org/story/traditions/061126/zambian-widow-defies-custom-and-life-amid-graves#.UQtvhlpU7FQ.

[4] Zambia. Aids Healthcare Foundation. http://www.aidshealth.org/africa/zambia.

[5] Mwizabi, Gethsemane. Zambia: The Ugly Face of Sexual Cleansing. 26 Nov 2004. http://allafrica.com/stories/200411290912.html.



  1. wendy says:

    Hi Kira,

    This was incredibly informative and well-written post! It highlights an issue that isn’t commonly discussed, but should be brought to light as it is incredibly appalling and really epitomizes the fundamental violation of a women’s right to her own bodily integrity. Thank you, also, for the very poignant presentation of this issue: personally, the most shocking part was the description of the fact that after the deed is done men “typically throw a match out of the window and make the declaration, “this my home,” symbolizing the completion the ritual.” I understand that rituals are sacred, but this does tread a fine line between human rights and sacred tradition (similar to the issue of FGM). I also found the stories of Theresa Chilala and Maria Moomba very, very disheartening. They really show the hopelessness women experience when it comes to “sexual cleansing”, which really seems to be a tradition put in place by men in power to stay in power. I look forward to reading more of your posts! Well done!


  2. sophia says:

    I had never heard about this practice before either. It’s so sad that regardless of whether they actually believe that they must be “cleansed” in order to prevent an early death or going crazy, or not, they are still forced either by their wrong beliefs or by imposition. I don’t know anything about sexuality in elderly women, but it may be the case that they don’t want intercourse not only because it’s not their husband but also because they are too old. It’s interesting that in many cultures having intercourse with or marrying the family of your husband is taboo, and yet in this culture it is a requisite when you become a widow. It’s so sad that women are so vulnerable and unprotected by their societies and governments. Once again we see a horrible example of the many practices most likely thought out by males to subjugate women.

  3. Chloe says:

    Hi Kira! I had never heard of this practice before so it was really interesting to read your post. What a horrible custom. I found the part about needed the white cloth to give to the widow particularly interesting because it is suggesting that the husband needs his wife’s permission to be unfaithful when clearly women are not valued or respected in this society and the man will do what he desires regardless. However, it is still necessary for him to have this white cloth, even if he gets it himself, not from his wife.

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