THIS year’s ‘International Widows Day’ offers Nigeria another chance to tackle head-on the difficulties limiting the potential of widows in the country. The United Nations set aside every June 23 since 2011 to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows around the world and to galvanise the unique support they need. As the world body says, the day is an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows. Nigeria should by words and deeds, buy-in fully into these noble objectives.
The UN put the figure of the widows around the world at 258 million, noting that nearly one in 10 lives in extreme poverty with the majority left unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in societies. The 2015 World Widows Report by the United Kingdom-based Loomba Foundation, an NGO, stated that widows in Nigeria accounted for 3.5 million of that number. The International Women Society in 2019 estimated the number of widows in Nigeria living in ‘abject poverty’ at 15 million.
There are varied obnoxious customs and traditions in Nigeria that women are subjected to when their husbands pass away even when the causes of death have been medically established. For instance, among other detestable cultural practices in some parts of the South-East, when a man dies, his wife’s head is shaved; she is isolated and forced to stay indoors for a period until the burial is concluded. Some are made to remain indoors with their husband’s corpse to prove they had no hand in his death.
In parts of Yorubaland, some widows are made to marry the younger brother of their deceased husbands. Similar primitive ill-treatment of widows occurs among many ethnic nationalities of Nigeria. Stories abound of families of widows’ spouses forcibly taking property from them, unconcerned about the future the survival of the widow and her children. Bizarrely, relatives see the property left behind by the dead relative as their rightful inheritance.
Rooted in superstition, some practices are barbaric, humiliating and unhealthy. In some communities, citing ancient traditions, widows are compelled to drink the water used in bathing their late husband’s corpses. The belief is that they would die if culpable in the death of their spouses.
Generally, widows undergo cruel treatment; mistreated, deprived of opportunities and looked down on account of their marital statuses. Deprived by the death of their breadwinner, many widows are forced to take on menial jobs to survive and feed their children. In this, many face exploitation, some sexual. Others are confronted with cruel individuals who treat them as lesser humans. Last year, a man in Ebonyi State reportedly used a hammer to break the right leg of a widow over N8,500; being her wages for the 10 days she worked for him.
In developing countries such as Nigeria, widows are known to suffer from poverty, violence, health, and conflict-related situations. In the North-East, North-West and some states in the North-Central, many women have been widowed by rampaging terrorists and killer herders without adequate support from their respective state governments to enable them wade through the difficult situation.
The burden of widowhood in Nigeria is huge and efforts must be made to turn the tide. There is a need for governments at all levels to partner with NGOs in mobilising massively against obnoxious cultural practices targeted at further traumatising the widows after battling the psychological trauma of their partners’ death. Widows should not be seen as outcasts; they are victims of circumstance and need emotional and material support.
The states’ ministries of women affairs and NGOs should push for the execution and enforcement of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015. They must see to the robust implementation of its provisions to abolish violence in public and private life, prohibit all forms of violence against persons, provide protection for victims and ensure punishments for offenders. Nigerians also should consciously drive the discourse on widows across social media platforms to expose repressive practices against them. Those making life hellish for widows and violating laws in the process should be made to pay dearly for their acts to serve as deterrent.
Widows suffer when their husbands die without making a will to take care of them and their children. Intestacy aggravates the distress of widows after the greedy and callous family members deploy every trick in the book to take over the property of the departed. Effective advocacy is therefore needed to convince husbands to imbibe the culture of will writing to mitigate challenges that may arise for their spouses after their death.
Tokenism is not enough. Widows without sustainable jobs should be empowered with entrepreneurial skills such as catering and decoration, liquid soapmaking, insecticide-making and cloth-making with seed capital to enable them to achieve financial autonomy. Public-spirited lawyers, NGOs should help by taking up cases of injustices against widows pro bono to restore their dignity purloined by callous in-laws. Society stands to lose more when widows, most of who are burdened with the care for their children, are further hampered by confinement, disfigurement, long mourning period and disinheritance.
State governments, federal and state legislators should help by initiating and passing legislation abolishing obnoxious and archaic customary laws that oppress women and widows. For instance, in some parts of the country, under customary law, women are regarded as chattels who cannot inherit the property of their husbands, though their children can. In others, a childless widow can neither inherit nor remain in her late husband’s home. She is thrown out.
There is hope, however. Lately, there have been encouraging court judgements overruling such absurdities against women on the ground of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. Some states have also been enacting laws correcting anomalies against women and widows. More should follow. Working with NGOs, faith-based organisations and women’s groups, the state governments should adopt the UN’s goals on widows and take positive, sustained actions to uplift them.