How widows, children, suffer hardship in the name of tradition
By Ebun Sessou & Florence Amagiya
Inspite of the touch of civilization in the lives of many villagers, tradition and customs still remain intact. While some remain passionate about it, some show a lot of disregard to it just as others especially the human rights activists consider some aspects of it as infringement on the rights of individuals. But what is the gain of any tradition or custom which is inimical to the life of individual?
For families who lost their loved ones, life could be miserable. They are exposed to a world of pain, anguish, frustration and untold hardship everyday of their lives.
The trauma they suffer as a result of the death of any of their parents is such that linger forever in their lives.
They also suffer neglects, groan and mourn all the days of their lives while nobody dares to listen to their plights.
They are denied their fundamental human rights, hence leaving them in the face of continuous frustration and misery all through their lives.
In one area of Edo State, Eunice, a 36-year lady who narrated a similar experience told Saturday Vanguard, her mother suffered torture in the hands of her late husband’s relations.
Her words: “When my father died, my mother was treated as an outcast. Her husband’s relation said, she knew something about her husband’s death, they called her a witch and for this reason they humiliated and tortured her for three months. “She was not allowed to have her bath nor wash her hands after eating. She wasn’t allowed to change her clothes or underwear either. It was a terrible situation, in fact, my mother regretted that she was married to my father.
“One of her late husband’s brother told her to sit and sleep on the bare floor during her period of confinement.
There was a particular story a friend of mine told me what a widow who was asked to go into the thick forest at night and recite some incantations for the purpose of “cleansing”, he continued.
“Some widows are also made to drink the water used to bathe the corpses of their deceased husbands; they are shaved and kept in seclusion for months while consultations are on as to the real cause of death of the man. “The widow is not expected to receive condolence visits from sympathisers during the period of mourning, she is to be re-married by a relative of the late husband, she is to sit on the floor or be naked during any period of the husband’s burial rite, weep and wail loudly at intervals, she must remain in confinement after the death of the husband for the given period dictated by tradition. In most cases, she must vacate the matrimonial home for the relatives of the man”, she added.
A friend of mine who also narrated her experience explained that, “The ugly situation of my life began when my husband died. He was an Igbo by tribe. His family members took away all his assets, without a slightest imagination of what I could be passing through with my four children.
“My children are still young and therefore they cannot fight for their late father’s properties. I was subjected to countless hardship. I was kept in the dark rooms for days with little or nothing to eat. I was made to sleep in the same room with my dead husband and the water used in bathing the dead man was given to me to drink.
“Any attempt to contest was met with stiff resistance. I believe my story is just one case out of the numerous cases of what widows go through after they had lost their loved ones”, she said.
In some societies, tradition prescribes harsh injunctions for widows, they are denied the use of ornaments, perfumes, flowers, fine clothing, no making of hair, in most cases, widows are shaved as a mark of respect for their departed husbands and they are denied all other beautiful things women cherish.
In fact, the phenomenon can simply be described as that of loss, deprivation, helplessness and hopelessness. The death of a loved one brings trauma, grief and a total restructuring of one’s life.
Speaking on why woman pass through this trouble, Human Right Activist, Josephine Okei-Odumakin, said. “Well, it is most unfortunate that at this stage and age women are still being humiliated by in-laws and relations of their late husbands based on the culture and religious beliefs and practices. This is an ugly situation and the outcome of our traditional and native beliefs before the advent of Christianity but sadly these practices still exist in some quarters.
“When a woman loses her husband, a civilized society should rally round to support her and her children.
Causing her more pain than she’s already going through at the death of the breadwinner is just plain evil.”
In certain parts of Nigeria, the maltreatment of women who lost their husbands is common. In-laws , the deceased relations and the community subject them to physical and emotional abuses such as being made to sit on the floor; being confined from a month to one year; having their hair literally scraped off with razors or broken bottles; not being allowed to bathe; being made to routinely weep in public; being forced to drink the water used to wash their husband’s corpse; crowned by the loss of inheritance rights and eviction.
I feel strongly that this humiliation must stop, it is now time that drastic measures are taken to stop this barbaric act so as to ensure its eradication.
For, Professor Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children. Her reaction:
Ordinarily my organization handle hundreds of cases every year that we give free legal aid in this area, especially on denial of inheritance and property rights to widows and their girl-children by in -laws and extended family members. WACOL mediates and represent victims in Court, including following up the matter with the Police.
On general violence against women by in-laws, including wife battering we provide various services such as shelter, counselling, medical support and pursuing legal action against the in laws as a last resort if we fail to get them to sign an undertaken not to repeat the abuse, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The situation of interference by in laws is rampant where the woman is widowed, childless or has only female children and they want their son to take a second wife or sack the wife and/or also deny her right to the estate of the deceased husband. . I have handled personally as a lawyer a lot of those cases and usually our interventions are big relief for affected women and brings succor to them.
We need to create awareness that will promote respect for women’s rights, especially right to private and family life. There is so much interference by extended family members causing marriages to breakdown irretrievably. Intermeddling in nuclear family affair is still highly prevalent because of our cultural and traditional values. Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL) has produced relevant legal literacy handbooks for example: Next of Kin Palaver; Rights and Wrongs of Widowhood; Will Making to enlighten the general public. I believe as the society develops the incidents will be reduced but for now there is so much hunger in the land and people want to grab and reap where they didn’t sow.
In Delta State
In Idjerhe of Ethiope West local government area of Delta, a young lady, Ejiro who narrated the ordeal she passed through recently said the sudden death of her father exposed her to different kinds of sufferings in the name of tradition before and after the burial of her late father.
In my place; the death of a parent is not seen a natural phenominon; it is blamed on something he or she must have done in his or her earthly life. It is said that the ancestors’ strike at any wrong done by a son or daughter of the soil, hence the family would consult their oracle to know what had happened. In most cases, whatever he lived for in his life time would be overruled by his immediate family if he didn’t prepare a will before his demise.; his wish would be disregarded as though he never lived. They say tradition is tradition.
The children of the deceased are fined for errors committed by their parents; perhaps in the aspects of community development levies he or she didn’t pay and for not visiting the village as they should have done and much more. In fact, the children are beaten up as though they killed their parents in the first place. When I lost my father; my elder brother was asked to travel home to inform his family about his demise, the first thing the family members did was to practically beat him up and fined him for coming alone; he ought to have visited with an elderly person he learnt later. He was advised to visit again with his siblings and their mother.
“So my siblings, my mum and I traveled to the village and the next question we heard from his family members was that they wanted the deeds to my late father’s properties; they wanted his cheque book and any other vital thing he possessed. We traveled the next time without all they wanted and we were beaten up; we had to defend ourselves! After the fight; we were asked to pay another huge fine or walk away and perhaps risk waking up with snakes they threatened.”
“At last, we got the family everything they asked for; they claim they are doing this because my late dad has three gates- meaning he has three women who had children for him. The properties were disposed of. A land was bought in the village town and a house built for the final resting place of the departed. I found out eventually that virtually every Urhobo man or woman belongs to one social club or the other. The aims and objectives of such clubs are mainly to assist its members during burials, but my own dad didn’t join any club because he was a member of a church.” “The clubs have extended their tentacles to the churches, but dad didn’t see the reason of mixing worshiping God and social club, he had just his service to God as his club he usually told us.
During burials, the groups from the churches are placed side by side with the groups from the church and it went in dad’s burial. We were asked the kind of burial we wanted to do; the first son was compulsory asked to get a casket for the deceased as the culture demands, the first daughter played her part by fanning the dead lying in state. The in laws paid for the grave digging. After the burial, my late dad’s properties were divided by the family.”
Mary, 28 also narrated her ordeal in the hands of those who believe every bit of the custom and tradition must apply to every situation after burying her late mum in Edo state. “In Aginiboni, a married woman who dies would remain in her husband’s place. Her corpse cannot be returned to her father’s house especially if her bride price was paid, hence her remains would be buried in her husband’s place. But if the husband wasn’t always going home; a land would be bought and built before the burial can commence.”
“Tradition mandates her to leave every personal property to her first son; no matter where he is and what contribution he had contributed to the success of the burial.”
Johnson Okorie from a community in Owerri, of Imo state has this to say. ‘I lost my father when l was in my twenty’s and my late dad’s immediate family didn’t have to seize anything from my mother because we had guys in the house although l was the last child; the case would be different if my mum didn’t have any child or if we were very young. My mum didn’t step out of the house until my father was lowered into mother Earth; which was three months later. Her hair was clean shaved by the women who visited and took turns in sleeping with her; the significance of the shaven hair shows the beginning of another episode in her life after the burial of the late husband.
Like they say different strokes for different people, burial rites are different from one community to another in the Eastern part of the country, they are often similar but with little variations.
When an Igbo man or woman with children dies, before any burial arrangement is made, his children or close relatives will have to visit several essential extended families to officially announce the death of their son or daughter, these visits to the maternal and paternal homes of the deceased requires a goat, a certain amount of money, and drinks.
Apart from the normal funeral ceremony celebrations, it is expected that when a man loses any of his parents, maybe his mother or father, he is expected to perform a burial rite called “omere oha”, which means celebrating for all.
This burial rite involves buying live a male dog, a ram, he-goat, and cock, each of the animals is beheaded by a male child of the deceased or any close family relative who must be a male.
Unlike in a general funeral ceremony, this particular funeral rite allows for a few number of persons, which include immediate and extended family members of the deceased as well as kinsmen. Preparation of traditional foods, Palm wine, dry gin, Kola nuts, and local music are made available by the host family.
Some parts of the beheaded dog, he-goat, ram and cock are properly cleaned up and prepared into local delicacies while the other parts are shared among each family represented. This ceremony is a must for every legitimate son and daughter who partook in the celebration of others. The only exemptions are those who have refused to partake in the celebration of others.
It is alleged that children who refuse to perform this rite for their late parents who partook in others, cannot eat at any funeral ceremony.