Despite the existence of laws to protect Nigerians against human rights abuse, harmful widowhood practices have continued to thrive in states across the country as widows experience maltreatment by in-laws and family members; PAUL OKAH reports.
Regardless of the state or ethic group, the death of a married man in Nigeria is often followed with concerns over how the widow or children will fare. Often times, family members and in-laws hardly allow the deceased to be buried before scrambling for the material wealth he left behind, especially if he died without children or without making a will.
Speaking with this reporter, a trader in Zuba, Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mrs. Gloria Okon, said she lost her husband during an armed robbery attack in Calabar in 2013, and had to relocate to her parents’ home as a result of maltreatment by her in-laws.
She said: “I was married in 2009 to a motor spare parts dealer in Calabar. However, he was killed by armed robbers one night in 2013. We had only two daughters together. I was so devastated especially as our second daughter was just five months old. As I didn’t have anything tangible to do, I had to relocate home from Calabar with my two children.
“The family members did not even wait for his burial before scrambling for the property he left behind. They stopped short of accusing me of having a hand in his death. No consideration was given to me and my children despite the fact that we were still mourning my husband.
“They sold the goods he had in the shop and used part of the proceeds for his burial. After that, I stayed in his family house for a while to train our children. But it was not conducive for me as I always had problems with my husband’s family members, especially his mother and younger brothers.
“When I couldn’t bear the constant quarrels and criticisms anymore with regards to the feeding and education of my children, I had to relocate to my father’s house. Though I am yet to re-marry, my daughters are growing up and I am taking care of their education from my petty business. I won’t wish my experience as a widow to even my worst enemy.”
Women lawyers’ demands
On June 23, in a statement by the group to celebrate the International Widow’s Day, the president of the African Women Lawyers Association (AWLA), Mrs. Amanda Asagba, called for stronger laws to protect widows against various forms of violence including harmful widowhood practices.
The statement read in part, “The majority of widows are subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment after the loss of their spouses, which consequently makes it imperative for favourable policies to be implemented to safeguard their rights.
“They may be denied inheritance rights to the piece of land that they relied on for livelihood or evicted from their homes, forced into unwanted marriages or traumatising widowhood rituals and subjected to other harmful cultural practices. They are stigmatized for life, shunned, shamed and isolated and many of these abuses go unnoticed, even normalised.
“Policies focus upon common citizens, labourers, jobless youth and other suffering segments of society; however, nothing is specifically discussed about widows in policy-making meetings. Such an ignoring attitude means that issues of more than 258 million widows worldwide remain unaddressed.
“In many Nigerian cultures, widows are often accused of killing their spouses, until they proved their innocence through some forms of traditional rituals like sleeping in a room with their husband’s corpses, drinking the bath water of their husbands’ corpses, and many other demeaning practices. These widowhood practices are acts of trauma, which have negative impact on her children, because when a widow is denied her inheritance rights, the children become homeless.”
It added, “We advocate for subsidised accommodation, school fees, legal aid and welfare packages for widows and their children. We advocate for the establishment of a specialised agency for widows to follow up on them and ensure they’re protected and given access to benefits available for them and their children.”
An NGO’s suggestion
On June 24, a non-governmental organisation, Women Centre for Self-Empowerment and Development (WOCSED), while rendering free diabetes, blood sugar, hypertension, HIV, Hepatitis B, Cervical and Breast Cancer screening to widows in Aguata local government area of Anambra state, urged them to embrace economic empowerment to be self-reliant and eradicate poverty,
According to the News Agency of Nigeria, speaking at the event, in commemoration of International Widows’ Day, while giving out cash gifts and clothing to the widows, its founder, Mrs. Onyeka Obi, expressed concerns over the plight of widows in the present times, adding that one of the greatest consolations to a bereaved widow is economic empowerment.
She said: “Widows in our society are mostly faced with stigmatisation, persecution, deprivation, marginalisation and exclusion as a result of the demise of their husbands. The incidence of widowhood is often a catalyst to poverty. This is why, as a responsive organisation, we are having this event to respond to some of the plight of widows and their children who suffered exclusion in the society.
“We urge widows to acquire skills that will keep them busy, help them think less about the unfortunate situation on hand and help them meet their basic financial needs. We also want to educate widows on the need to embrace healthy lifestyle to prevent diseases such as cancers. No one knows when he or she will die, hence the need to show sympathy and provide succour to vulnerable widows, instead of adding to their sorrows.”
And the law
In an interview with Blueprint Weekend, an Abuja-based legal practitioner, Emmanuel Chukwu Madujibe, said international laws and the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria have provided protection for widows if they can approach law courts for redress whenever their rights are infringed upon by overzealous in-laws and society.
“The law adequately guarantees the protection of the rights of widows, especially in the determination of the disposal of their deceased husband’s remains and estates in Nigeria. This usually arises where the deceased husband died intestate; without a will.
“However, even where there is a will, some overzealous in-laws and relatives resort to the machinations of customary law to determine how the estates of the deceased will devolve. To some extent, the society is still primordial, savagery and unrepentant in the recognition of the proprietary rights of widows in Nigeria.
“In many parts of Nigeria, widows are still relegated to being chattels who devolve to an interested mature male member of the deceased family at the death of her husband. They are not also entitled to participate in taking decisions to conclude the burial rites of their deceased husbands. Indeed, widows are subjected to varying forms of cruel and degrading treatments, which the law abhors.
“Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides for equality of men and women before the law and further protects both from being discriminated against by reason of their sex or status. The combined effects of the provisions of Articles 5 & 16 of the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women protects women from being discriminated of prejudice on their status and also accentuates their rights in property.
“The issue with the category of women under consideration in not getting adequate coverage by the law, regarding their rights from being infringed upon, is that they are ignorant of these laws protecting them, and so ignorance of the law has never been an excuse,” he said.