For many African women, the sudden arrival of widowhood is not confined to the emotional trauma of losing a cherished companion. African widows are often subjected to a series of socio-cultural practices and customary laws that foreshadow a longer-term struggle for basic needs, human rights, and dignity. Widows may be denied inheritance rights property, evicted from marital homes, coerced into conjugal unions with brothers-in-law, or subjected to traumatizing rituals. In the 18th and 19th centuries, widows were often sold into slavery. In many cases, widows were and are permanently marked, stigmatized, shunned and shamed, while their ordeals remain unnoticed by wider society. In scholarly surveys on widows and widowhood in sub-Saharan Africa a range of case studies have demonstrated the widespread collapse in communal, family, and social support for bereaved women. A sudden and new autonomy, independence, and self-reliance, however, is often an opportunity, unleashing a complex set of survival strategies, resistance, and resilience. While news media and humanitarian organizations may decry the “plight” of millions of African widows, exoticizing allegations of witchcraft for example, data from across the continent reveal that widows have and engage various options, sometimes remaining in a late husband’s community, and other times striking out on their own. And whereas widows of all ages, and from different backgrounds and cultures throughout Africa, have experienced multiple forms of discrimination, neglect, superstition, psychological oppression, and physical abuse, the experiences, practices, and customs attendant to widowhood are also vehicles with which to explore the complexity of law, tradition, patriarchy, and social innovation in the historical past and contemporary present. Most African societies, national laws, and constitutions today continue to discriminate against women with respect to family, inheritance, land ownership, credit, education, health and other social and political dimensions. But as the European colonial origins of many of these norms are increasingly recognized and exposed, feminist activists and domestic and international human rights groups, successfully challenge received wisdoms.

The organizers of this panel sequence at the African Studies Association (ASA) meeting seek scholars advancing new theoretical and empirical research on widowhood practices in sub-Saharan Africa, past and present, to join us in Washington DC, as we revisit, rethink, and reconceptualize the experience of widowhood in Africa. We are interested in original research employing diverse disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary approaches, not limited to archival, oral, ethnographic, sociological, linguistic, demographic, epidemiological methods, and others. We welcome work focused on one country, community, ethnic or national group, as well as comparative, multi-site, regional, continent-wide research.

Proposals – consisting a title (12 words or less), abstract of 200 words plus works cited, and complete contact information – may be submitted by email to Benjamin Lawrance, [BENLAW[at]arizona.edu] by February 28, 2020. Accepted proposals will be organized into panels and submitted to the ASA meeting. Accepted participants are required to pre-register for the 63rd African Studies Association Annual Meeting no later than March 10, 2020, to be include in the sequence. Participants bear the entire costs of attendance.