SIBITI — Being gifted as inheritance to the brother of your dead husband, seeing everything you own confiscated, being able to wash only when your in-laws decide. These are some of the abusive traditional practices suffered too often by widowed women in the Lékoumou region of the Republic of the Congo.

A recent gathering of various women's protection groups and local representatives confronted this custom, known as "le Ngo." Participants, including native women representing local neighborhoods, denounced such abuse.

"From the day of her husband's death, she's banned from looking at those around her, or from trimming her nails or doing her hair for more than a year," says Marie Florence Minengué, representative for the neighborhood of Moussanda. "The widow is only allowed to eat at the times set by her late husband's parents and must wear a knee-length cloth instead of an ankle-length one. This is a way of making women be seen as responsible for their husbands' deaths."

Catherine, who has been a victim of this kind of prejudice, says her husband was wounded with a machete by his own parents because they thought he was a sorcerer. "He died of his wounds in the hospital," she says. "His parents abandoned me with his corpse and took away all his belongings. They even took my own goats, sheep and cows, leaving me with my children without any livelihood."

Patricia, another local representative, details other examples of such indignities. "Not only are widows only covered with only a simple raffia cloth, they're also allowed to drink only with the family-in-law's permission," she says.

Angélique Mouandza-Ndossa, president of a women's advocacy group, says the abuse "must be seen as violence against women in general, and treated as such." The code of the Congolese family indeed states that "traditional mourning rites are voluntary. They cannot be forced upon widowers or widows. Abuse and mistreatment of widows or widowers during mourning ceremonies will be punished, in accordance with the penal code."

Catherine Nkoué Ngoulou, local leader of the Congolese Ministry for the Promotion of Women, says that all levels of authority must do everything they can to fight against these customs with ancient tribal origins. "Our department regards mistreatment towards widows as violence against women, and we're waiting for the Parliament to ratify a bill that will protect widows."

In the meantime, some of the participants said that some progress has been made. For example, in the neighborhood of Mapindi, a local committee has been formed to ensure that widows are not shunned or abused after their husbands' deaths. Indeed, local leaders want to take an entirely different approach to women who have lost their husbands: help them.