4 January 2012

Nigeria: Widows - Voices Unheard, Rights Quashed

Photo: G. Cranston/IRIN
Domestic violence is often not well documented.


Widows in Nigeria are in the category of the unheard and the forgotten as they are not part of national discourse. GABRIEL EWEPU examines the predicament of this category of vulnerable women and how the problem can be addressed.

Over the years, widows in Nigeria have been neglected and maltreated by the society. Few, if anybody, tend to listen and care about their welfare. It can be said there is no group more affected by the sin of omission than widows. They are left out of government's policies and legislations; forgotten in the scheme of things. Even the media underreport the plight of these women as issues affecting them are neither mentioned frequently on the pages of newspapers nor highlighted by the broadcast media as it concerns the frustration, oppression, poverty, health and human rights problems that they face. In fact widow's advocacy is weakly made.

Mrs. Blessing Christopher, who hails from one of the Southeast states, lost her husband 25 years ago and has never known peace since then. Abandoned and neglected by her in-laws, she can't but weep as she narrated her ordeal. She tearfully said: "I lost my husband in 1986 while I gave birth to my last daughter, who is now 25 years old. Actually, it has not been easy with me and my children. The family of my late husband abandoned us after they forcefully took away his three cars, confiscated his house and bank accounts. They never cared about the children's upkeep and I struggled to sponsor their education. They don't even know where we are. I managed to acquire a piece of land in Nyanya in 2006. I used to sell palmwine but now I sell pure water and other provisions. I buy the things I sell on credit.

"Presently, my daughter is about to gain admission into University of Abuja but I do not have the money to settle the fees. Even the little business I am doing is heavily indebted. I have been living from one uncompleted building to another in Abuja. I sold bread at Area 2 junction until taskforce sent us packing. My feeding is a major problem and how to sponsor my last daughter's university education only makes matter worse."

Also, in 2010 in Warri, Delta State, while officiating the wedding of four couples in his church, Words of Life Bible Church, the President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, decried the ill-treatment meted out to widows.

"I was discussing with some people in Lagos recently on the way widows are being treated in the society. The way we treat widows is very bad. It is easier for a man who loses his wife to survive than for a woman. What we do to them is wrong. We should change from the way we treat widows," he said.

The plight of widows in Nigeria is pathetic and heart-breaking. The psychological torture that they experience compounds the trauma of their husband's demise that leads to depression and related-health problems.

In Nigeria, certain customary laws permit certain unwholesome practices that subject widows to discrimination, deprivations and other degrading treatments. At the death of her husband, she is seen as unclean and impure, and the customs she must observe in the weeks following her husband's death can undermine her health. If she has no male adult children, she may be ejected from her husband's house as both it and his land will have been inherited by his oldest brother. In most cases, the husband's kin do not provide the widow with any economic support, particularly if she will not accept the status of being an additional wife to one her husband's brothers.

Under Igbo customary law, wives do not have inheritance rights as they are considered "property" of the late husband's estate and, as a result, are considered an "object of inheritance themselves" Among the Yoruba, a brother or son of the deceased Igbo husband, but not the son of the woman, was traditionally allowed to inherit the widow as a wife.

In Igbo land, a young widow who refuses to marry from her late husband's kindred faces persecution. However, she may likely escape the persecution if she has a grown son who can speak for her and defend her rights. There has reportedly been a 'steady improvement' in the treatment of Igbo widows in Nigeria as western education and government intervention continue to influence traditional practices.

Also, the complexities associated with levirate marriage as well as Christianity have reduced the practice expect where the deceased has enormous wealth and greed sets in.

It is disheartening as there are no legislations made by those who widows voted for to protect their rights and give them a sense of belonging despite their situation, as those lawmakers continue to watch as widow are subjected to a long period of incarceration during morning, an obligatory poor standard of hygiene, deprivation of the husband's property and maltreatment by his relatives, the enforcement of persistent wailing, and the practice of demanding that a widow sit in the same room with her husband's body until burial.

Unfortunately, the government does not have the exact numbers of widows in the country, their ages and other psychographic details about them. Yet widows constitute a sizable percentage of all adult women, and among these widows many are still rearing children. In some parts of Nigeria, girls who become widows suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of family members, often within the context of property disputes.

A widow, Angela said, "We are being treated as animals just because we are widows." Widows are often the victims of violence in the law context of inheritance, land and property disputes. Many are alleged to be witchcrafts and evil, violently ejected by the late husband's relatives, assault and rejection. The rate of poverty among widows is alarming and saddening. Widows make up a sizeable percentage of poor people in Nigeria. They are usually not allowed to inherit their husband's property, nor are they party to their father's property as their rights are limited to inheritance under customary and religious laws. As they do not have inheritance rights, they continue to languish in poverty. The government has not shown the political will to intervene in traditions and customs which abuse widows and pauperise them, despite sections of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (articles 5 and 16) relating to personal status law.

According to Barr. Ego Ezuma, founder, Voice of the Less Privileged Organisation (VOLPO) the society is not fair enough to widows. She said, "Widows are really passing through hellish experience. The society we live in today is not helpful to as they are being ill-treated by the families of their deceased husbands. Can you imagine, widows are made to drink the water used in washing the corpse of their husbands? This is dehumanizing and unhealthy. Even some are made to sleep with their husbands' corpse."

On what should be done to help widows, Ezuma said, "The society should give them a listening ear, sense of belonging and fight for their right. There should a scheme to help them to be self-reliant through socio-economic empowerment, whereby they are financially and morally supported. Like my organisation, we give a helping hand to improve their living condition by empowering them through skill acquisition and with cash to start a meaningful business venture. The government should do more to protect the rights of these vulnerable women. Women should be enlightened about their human rights on inheriting their late husband's property."

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