Widow inheritance (also known as bride inheritance) is a cultural and social practice whereby a widow is required to marry a male relative of her late husband, often his brother. The practice is more commonly referred as a levirate marriage, examples of which can be found in ancient and biblical times.
The practice was meant as a means for the widow to have someone to support her and her children financially, and to keep her late husband's wealth within the family bloodline. At the time it was initiated, women were responsible for the house chores and men were the providers, therefore if the woman lost her husband, she would have no one to provide for the remaining family. Because her in-laws would not want someone outside of the family's blood line to inherit her late husband's estate, she was required to marry within the family.
This can have various forms and functions in different cultures, serving in relative proportions as a social protection for, and control over, the widow and her children. She may have the right to require her late husband's extended family to provide her with a new man, or conversely she might have the obligation to accept the man put forward by the family, with no real prospect of turning him down, if her birth family will not accept her back into their home.
The custom is sometimes justified on the basis that it ensures that the wealth does not leave the patrilineal family. It is also sometimes justified as a protection for the widow and her children.
Widow inheritance by region
A form of widow inheritance is part of Mosaic law, where it is known as levirate marriage (see yibbum). A feature of this practice is that the dead husband’s brother is obligated to marry his dead brother’s widow. However, this applies only if the widow (and consequently the deceased husband/brother) had no children. However, there are mechanisms whereby either party can avoid such a marriage.
In Uganda it is customarily assumed that the welfare of widows and their children will be taken care of by the deceased’s kin as a matter of course. However, in practice, widows are often simply dispossessed of their farmland and other assets, thus forced by circumstances either to return to their own family or to become subordinate wives of their deceased husband’s brothers. In the Zanzan Region of the Cote d’Ivoire inheritance among all ethnic groups, except the Mande, is matrilineal and patrilocal. This means that if the husband dies, his assets are inherited by his nephews on his mother’s side; the wife then either marries the heir, or returns to her own family (leaving her children with their father's family).
Among Pashtun communities, the code known as Pashtunwali requires a widow to marry, even against her will, her dead husband's brother or cousin. The code also requires that her children be treated as children of the new husband. The Taliban campaigned against the practice as being against shariah law.
- International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Uganda, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire - The situation of widows, archived from the original on 2019-06-22, retrieved 2015-05-27
- "Honour among them". Economist Magazine. 19 December 2006. Retrieved 11 November 2018.