Sunday, July 3, 2016

Panacea to harmful widowhood practices in Nigeria

"The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda with its pledge to leave no one behind has a particular resonance for widows, who are among the most marginalised and isolated.” –United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

June 23 of every year has been set aside by the United Nations as International Widow’s Day. This year’s theme is “Never Alone”.  The UN General Assembly declared 23 June 2011 as the first-ever International Widows’ Day to give special recognition to the situation of widows of all ages and across regions and cultures. According to the international organisation, “absent in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organisations – the situation of widows is, in effect, invisible. Yet abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today. Millions of the world’s widows endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health and discrimination in law and custom.”

There are estimated 259 million widows around the world with a sizeable number of them in underdeveloped and conflict prone environment. In Nigeria, the 1967 – ‘70 civil war and the Boko Haram insurgency from 2009 to date have created more widows than at any other time in the post-independent era Nigeria. This is because men are the ones that are mobilised to fight war. It is difficult to have accurate statistics of widows in Nigeria as nobody seems to be tracking it. However, the number will be in millions.

Widowhood rites differ across different tribes and ethnic groups in Nigeria and there are over two hundred and fifty ethic identities in this country. Some of the harmful practices include confinement, defacement, disinheritance, ritual cleansing, and discrimination.  To further break it down, once a man dies, the wife automatically becomes confined indoor to mourn the departed husband. The duration of this rite vary from one culture to the other. During this period, particularly in Igboland, the widow’s head is shaved clean and she is made to sleep on bare floor. Some widows are also not allowed to bathe during the morning period while they are made to wear black cloth. In some culture, as a proof that the widow has no hand in the death of the husband, she is made to swear and drink of the water used in bathing the corpse of her husband. Failure to do this is interpreted to mean that the woman is the architect of the death of her husband. That could lead to her excommunication.

In some cultures, particularly among the Yorubas, the widow could be affianced to the younger brother of the deceased husband. Thus, the same woman could have children for two brothers within the same family. The major challenge widows’ face is that of disinheritance. More often than not, these endangered species are stripped completely of their husbands’ assets by their families. It matters little if the properties in question were jointly owned by the couple. In such circumstance, the woman, especially if she happens to be a full time housewife will become economically disempowered and would then graduate to a destitute as she will find it increasingly difficult to fend for herself and her children, especially if they are still very young.    This wicked act of confiscating and denying women inheritance has cut short many widows lives as they become stressed, sick and ultimately died prematurely if they are not helped out of poverty on time. In fact, this is what often leads many young widows to remarry.

In a locus classicus case on inheritance, Nigeria’s Supreme Court in April 2014 ruled to abolish the ancient culture in Igboland that denies women the right of inheriting property in their father’s house. Specifically, a five-man panel of Justices of the apex court held that the practice conflicted with section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.  According to the court, “Any culture that dis-inherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God instituted gender differential should be punitively dealt with”. Despite this noble judgment, the inhuman act of disinheritance of widow is still very much in practice in Igboland.

It is easier to deprive widows of their inheritance if the marriage is contracted under native law and customs, especially when the husband dies intestate, that is, without a Will (a statement of what somebody wants to happen to his or her property after he or she dies, or a legal document containing this statement.) The widow may also lose out of benefiting from her husband’s pension savings, gratuity, insurance claim, bank savings and other financial investments if she is not made the Next-of -Kin in the records of those transactions.  The ripple effect of harmful widowhood practices is that it concomitantly affects the children of the deceased as the destiny of many of them may be truncated if they do not have anyone to assist them through schools or acquisition of life skills after the death of their fathers.  More so, if the children are still at tender age or formative years of their lives.

It is high time something drastic is done to halt these harmful cultural practices. Government, civil society organisations, culture icons, opinion moulders; traditional rulers and religious leaders need to embark on comprehensive sensitisation campaigns against these obnoxious and archaic practices.  Men should learn to write Will so that their family will be legally guided on the sharing of their estates. Men, particularly those who have one wife should make their spouses their Next-of-Kin if they truly love them. If they would not do that for any personal reason, then it should be their sons. Should they make the mistake of using their brother or sibling as Next-of-Kin, they should be rest assured that their immediate family will be cheated out of any accrued benefits derivable. Economic empowerment of our wives should also be of utmost importance. The starting point here is even to have those who are illiterates trained up in formal education. This will make them aware of their rights, even as widows. Second, it will make such educated women employable and as such able to support in the home management. Should that not be an option, the wives could be assisted to learn a vocation or start off a trade.

For widows who are at present suffering from these antediluvian cultural norms; they need not die in silence. They should speak out and seek help. National Human Rights Commission, Legal Aid Council, Office of Public Defenders, National Association of Women Journalists, International  Federation of Women Lawyers, Women Rights Advancement Protection Alternatives, Women Aids Collective  are few of the state and non-state actors from which they could seek help.

Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.