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Agonies of widows hit by harsh Nigerian traditions

By Jemi Ekunkunbor, Chidi Nkwopara, Austin Ogwuda, Ishola Balogun, Florence Amagiya,  Aderonke Adeyeri, Edwin Eze, Henry Umoru &  Peter Duru

*The body of my husband was yet to be put in the mortuary when the brother took me to another room and asked about the documents of the house, insisting that I had to leave

– Uju, Awka

*My husband was in bed in hospital when the sister asked for huge amount of money from our account and when I declined she rained abuses on me, swearing that I would regret it. Three days after, my husband died, his family descended on me, took his cars away and emptied the house. On the day he was buried, the elder brother asked me to submit documents of the house and any property he owned

– Nwamaka – Nsukka

*When my husband died, his family asked me to marry his younger brother. When I refused, they summoned a meeting to share my children among them on the grounds that I refused to remain in their family – Benedicta, Shagamu

*I’m an architect and I have experienced the agonies of widows from Igbo land. My friend, Emeka, was on life support and we contributed money for his medication everyday. We never saw any of his brothers.

The day he died, they besieged his house, took away everything and asked the woman to leave the property. Emeka just bought a property at Lekki before he took ill. I had the documents. Later, I confided in my friend’s widow. She sold the property N70m, bought a house at Ilupeju for N30m and used N40m to begin a new life. She is fine today with the two children she had with Emeka.Widow1

Another Igbo friend of mine died and when I got to the house the wife was crying, hitting her head on the wall and saying she was finished. I calmed her down and asked her to take away the papers of the building they lived. She was reluctant but I insisted and she gave the papers to her 16 year old son. Later, her in-laws came and asked her to bring the documents of the house. She said their brother never gave her the papers and that they should feel free to search the house. They did. I told her in-laws that my friend once told me he was about to sell the house and that they should find out if he sold it. They later left and I told the woman to pack out of that house so that nobody would know the trick. She did even before the burial. Her in-laws searched for months on who bought the house without success. Today, my friend’s widow is living on the rent from that house and taking care of the children she bore for my friend – Biodun, Lagos.

It is the dream of every girl to find her perfect man, her Prince in shining armour; who would swing her off her feet and lead her to the altar to utter those two profound words, ‘I do’. And to there after, ‘live happily ever after’ and grow old together. But life is not always a bed of roses or a fairy- tale book, neither do all have the privilege of growing old together. Events happen that cut short such dreams; jolting us back to reality; a harsh reality that many are battling to live.

The intervention of death in life terminates lofty dreams, ambitions and aspirations and in a marriage situation, death brings final separation leaving the living partner to carry on.

When Mariam Bolaji (not real names) a teacher and entrepreneur met her husband a widower chartered accountant, about 10 years ago, for this single mother of one, it was something like a divine arrangement. He was a Lagos-based auditor who often traversed the north auditing companies. It was on one of such trips that he met beautiful and fun loving Mariam. It was like love at first sight and he wooed her passionately until she gave in to him. They became inseparable in the next five years that they courted. ‘He was the love of my life, recalls Mariam as the tears gathered in her beautiful eyes. “He was tall and very intelligent. You don’t find that kind of package in one man. But that was what God blessed me with”.

Leaving her ‘comfort zone’ wasn’t easy for Mariam. But she was too much in love not to let go. So she packed up her business and job and moved down south to be with the man she loved. On May 16th 2009, they got married according to Islamic injunctions and their Yoruba culture and traditions. Life afterward was bliss. Their home was a nest and they relished each other’s company. But the joy seemed too good to last. By March the following year, she got a call that shattered her whole world, threatening her very existence today. Her adorable husband of barely a year had died.

“On the day my husband died, he called 20 minutes before he died and said that he was not feeling too well and that he was stopping at the hospital to check his blood pressure.

But when he was supposed to be home he didn’t come. Then I got a call from someone who said my name was the last registered on my husband’s phone that I should hurry to the hospital. When I got to my gate, one bike man told me he saw one man struggling with my husband in the car in Akute. By the time I got to the clinic, he had died.

Right there in the hospital, my As-Salat members came and started telling me I should know what to take in the house. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My husband had just died for goodness sake.

They came again and told me to take what I wanted because my husband was dead. I said I didn’t have anything to take. My husband was a widower with three children. I told them I was waiting for them to come. I was the only living wife and I married him legitimately. Why should I worry about property?

You know if I cooperated with those people, they would have claimed that I killed the man. How can somebody die and you are talking of property? It’s not done like that in the north where I grew up. When my in-laws came, I handed over everything to them. His phones, keys, spare keys to our house, his Pathfinder jeep, his office. For about six months my room was locked and most of my things got damaged.

In the north when your husband dies, they share everything according to what Islam says. But here in the south, I see that they follow culture. Northerners have their way of doing things. They give the widow attention. If a Muslim dies, his property is shared amongst his wives and children. And if you have a problem, people rise up to help you. Here, the story is different. Instead, you find people who want to take advantage of you. The only support I have received has been from my husbands elder brother. Unfortunately, he is not in a position to help me financially.

Although I still live in the house we were building together, but for my eldest brother in-law, I would have been kicked out. The Yorubas have this tradition that once you are married and you don’t have a child, it’s a problem. The person that passed on wished he had a child with me. I wish I had a child for my beloved husband. People should move close to a widow because it is a pain that cannot be taken away.

They should move close to the woman, encourage her and meet her at the point of her need instead of accusing her. No matter how much you hate your husband you wouldn’t want him to die not to talk of a beloved one.

Strange as it may sound, Mariam is not alone in this ordeal. Thousands of women across Africa and indeed Nigeria are subjected to all kinds of inhuman treatment on the death of their spouses. The injustices vary from culture to culture. Since the fourth World conference on women in Beijing in 1995, attention has been drawn to the need for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. With the millions of Naira expended by NGOs in creating awareness about this inhuman treatment of widows, the practice continues to hold sway in various communities in Nigeria and goes from strange to bizarre to the unimaginable.

When 38 year old Eunice, a native of Oyo lost her husband, her ordeal can only be described as a nightmare. Having been accused of killing her husband by her husband’s family from Kogi State, she was subjected to heavy humiliation and unpleasant demands just to prove her innocence. She was compelled to drink from the water used in bathing the remains of her husband and restricted from going out for several months. Her hair was shaved, and her inheritance denied and stolen from her.

SHAGAMU, OGUN STATE

For 40 year old Benedicta Oguntade from Shagamu in Ogun State, she was also accused by her in laws of having a hand in the death of her husband. Tradition took its course and she went through this bizarre experience.

“I was made to sleep in the same room with my husband’s corpse before he was buried in the morning. I was thereafter made to cook, just a native way of verifying if I killed my husband. My barbaric sisters-in-law demanded I cooked and displayed the food outside in the night my husband was to be buried. They said if the food disappeared by morning, then I would be free and it would be known that I knew nothing about the death of my husband. The food disappearing would mean that my late husband had nothing against me and he ate the food.  But if the food remained till the next morning, then it would be concluded I had a hand in his death and that made him to reject the food. Luckily, for me, the food disappeared before dawn although I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t know what happened. Who could have taken the food meant for a dead man?  Could it be that their seer told them I didn’t have a hand in the death of my husband and one of them removed the food? However, proving my innocence did not stop them from hurting me and my children further,”

If this was all Eunice had to go through then it would have been bearable but there was no stopping the in-laws. From verifying her culpability in the death of her husband, they went further to deny her inheritance rights. According to her, “my husband’s relatives tried endlessly to collect my husband’s entitlements from the company where he worked as the legal adviser. They went as far as going to the bank with a published notice of his death but the bank did not honour their demand since they were not his next of kin. I was forced to relocate to Sagamu by the family, saying there were some rituals to be done. It was there the family compounded my agony and made life more difficult for me and my children.

My children and I spent six days in the village. On the first night, I was asked to go to my husband’s tomb and pray for hours. I was scared of staying outside at night all by myself but two men whom I later discovered where my late husband’s school mates volunteered to stay by me. The next day, my children and I were among the villagers who danced round the village with my husband’s picture. The third day, I was taken to some women whom I later learnt were widows.  These women took turn to speak with me and advised on what was expected of me. I wept because I was now part of an association I didn’t pray to be a member. On the sixth day, I was invited to a meeting in the village where I was told that I should marry my husband’s younger brother, Habeeb, who was younger than me. I vehemently refused and they became very angry. They summoned me to a meeting where they said I didn’t want to be part of their family and as a result began deliberation on how to share my children among themselves; saying I could leave without my children. I quietly sneaked out the village the next morning with my kids. Since then, I have been toiling day and night to see that my children go to school and get the necessary things they need in this life.”

Just like our first respondent Mariam, not having a child compounded the woes that befell Ayodekun Temitope when her husband died in 1998. Although they lived an affluent life, her husband’s family members from Ake in Ogun State, mounted pressure on him to do something about his childlessness. He finally succumbed to family pressure and married another woman.

“When my husband died, I was asked by one of my sisters-in-law to urinate in an open place and in the presence of everyone in the village in order to prove my innocence in my husband’s death. My bladder was blocked because of the stress and the psychological feeling of doing it before the crowd. I only managed to do it an hour later, but my junior wife was not part of the ritual because they felt I was the one who killed our husband since I didn’t bear him a child”.

My hair was shaved and I was made to cover myself with a black wrapper for three-months after which I was given two sets of wrappers to wear for a period of one year’

She is yet to get justice over her husband’s property.

DELTA STATE

From Delta State, the story is not different. Although the approach may differ slightly, it always boils down to injustice, pain and maltreatment for the widow. Why are all widows always guilty of one crime or the other? Why is it always upon death that those allegations are thrown up by in-laws and members of families?

Mrs Aruoriwo Agofure, an Urhobo from Delta State was married for 40 years. She shares her ordeal.

“The first thing the family did after my husband died was to assess all my husband’s properties. They went as far as throwing all my belongings out of my husband’s house. Thereafter, they sold all the houses including the house my children and l shared with my late husband. My children and I eventually moved our belongings into a church as we didn’t have anywhere to keep them.

“We found out that tradition permits the beating of the late man’s children; so when they started this traditional rite, I jumped, so l would be beaten along side my children. What did they do? They didn’t kill their father! They didn’t cause his death! My children and I were beaten up severally before the burial. After the burial, l was forced to crawl on my knees to beg my husband’s family to stop the beating. It got to the extent that my children couldn’t take it any more and we retaliated. Both my daughters and sons were not left out in the fight.

We finally buried my late husband amidst fighting, violence and contention; to the extent that my children are now enemies of my husband’s family. Again, we were asked to provide our own share of money for my husband’s burial rites which I felt was normal. We gave the little we had and pledged to pay the balance which we did.

“I left everything for them. I now live alone in a small, uncompleted building”.

IGBO LAND

From the Eastern part of Nigeria, comes the same tale of woes and pains, Reports EDWIN EZE.

The Igbos are a people whose values are strongly entrenched in their culture and traditions and when it comes to the issue of practices associated with widowhood, the story is not different. Sadly, horrible as the tales may be, the women themselves in most cases are the ones who insist on enforcing stipulated obnoxious customs and traditions on their fellow women. Thankfully, the change that is most desired is emerging from that zone.

In Igboland, a widow a.k.a  Nwanyi ajadu, usually passes through  three stages of agony in life, as soon as she loses her husband which invariably traumatizes her and leaves her a nervous wreck.
In the first place, she goes through the pain of taking care of her ailing husband, and on his death she also takes part in planning for his burial. Thereafter, the most excruciating pain of watching her husband’s siblings contest ownership of her husband’s property concludes her agony. Widowhood is an ordeal in the life of an Igbo woman. Her horror starts with the shaving of her hair, to isolation from people and even denying her a good bath for over one week. Her piteous state occasioned by her unkempt body, leaves her looking like a mentally deranged woman. Her outlook epitomizes abandonment, rejection, neglect and ugliness.

In a situation where the widow had no son in the marriage, she automatically forfeits all her husband’s landed property, forcing her to wrap up everything and return to her maiden home. In some Igbo communities the widow is forced to chew bitter kola early in the morning to frustrate her taste all day long.

Elizabeth Okoronkwo had it hot with her husband’s sibling after the death of her husband Boniface. “When Bona died, hell was visited on me and my three daughters. We were almost beaten up as they struggled for Bona’s property. It was wise counsel from my friends that made me run away from my husband’s village in Item, Imo state to Enugu where I now sell second-hand clothing’.

The case of Justina Aguba from Ishielu in Ebonyi state is very pathetic. She narrated how her husband of ten years had died in a ghastly motor accident and because she had no child in the marriage, she was chased out of the compound. She promptly relocated to Onitsha where she started pure water business.

In Eha Amufu, Enugu state Madam Mgbodi Eze narrated how she lost all her husband’s landed property on his death. She however said that because she was pregnant when her husband died, luck smiled on her when she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy. Her husband’s sibling wanted to kill the boy, but she fled to safety in her elder sister’s home in Asaba. “We stayed there till my son became a man and returned to claim his father’s property”

Augustina (Surname withheld) married at a very young age. Her marriage was neither blissful nor enjoyable. She said she was only married in name as her late husband kept a harem of women and she was left to pick up the bills including school fees, rent, hospital bill, utility bills, clothing and all. When my husband died, all my husband’s step brothers felt I had become a public property that must be used by all and sundry.

None of them was interested in knowing how I lived or how I have been managing to take care of my children. When I rejected their amorous advances, I immediately became their enemy. They quickly appropriated everything we acquired. Soon after the death of my husband, I was no longer remembered each time farmlands were to be shared during each year’s planting season. Today, I have been forced to relocate to a different community, so as to have peace of mind’.

Like Augustina, Adaeze lost everything she acquired with her husband. Today, this lady and her children have literarily been banished from the family home. Her brothers- in-law dislike her with passion and even accused her of killing her husband. Somehow, these in-laws spread the ugly news in the village and days to the burial of her husband, the maidens in the community prevented her from taking her bath or sleeping on a mattress. She was not even allowed to sleep but her supposed guards took turns to sleep.

As mentioned earlier, widowhood practices vary from community to community. While the practice of culture in some communities, villages are very friendly especially to the widows, some are archaic, barbaric and very cruel. And this happens irrespective of whether the woman has children or not.

EDO STATE
In Ikpeshi, a border town between Akoko- Edo and Etsako West Local Government Areas of Edo State, a widow is forced to leave the late husband’s house for her parents’ house one year or six months after the death of her husband, reports HENRY UMORU. This treatment is meted out on women who are natives of the community. Even if she contributed in the building of their house, tradition demands that she leaves the house on the death of her husband. As a result, women who have the resources to build their own houses do so even while in their husbands house knowing that they will not be entitled to inheriting their husbands house when they pass on.
However, in some rare cases, some widows are allowed to stay after due consultation of the oracle and the dead man’s spirit approves for her to stay.

For widows that are non natives (Enabo), their fate is slightly different. The woman married from outside has the right to the house after the death of her husband. She is even allowed to re-marry while still in that same house. This culture has been an age long one and the people still find it difficult to change.

In Ikpeshi, lineage is drawn from the woman like it is practiced in Ghana. Women own both children and property. This explains why most men marry from outside so that the wife gets to retain the house.

MAKURDI

In Makurdi, the experience and ordeal of widows at the death of a bread winner in the two major ethic groups-Tivs and Idomas that constitute Benue State vary reports PETER DURU.

 

It is consequent upon the provisions of the native laws and customs of the tribe concerned. Either way, widows in Benue state are scarcely subjected to unfriendly and chilly practices that are obtainable in some parts of the country except in extreme cases where a widow is fingered in the death of her husband.

The widow in the Tiv speaking areas of the state are usually treated with much compassion at the death of their husbands.
After the conclusion of the burial rites of the deceased, the next move of the late husband’s kinsmen would be to propose that the widow remarries a new husband who is usually one of the brothers of the deceased.

She is not compelled to do that and she is usually allowed an option of accepting the offer of marrying one of the brothers of her late husband or turn it down.

By the Tiv custom, a widow is also not subjected to any obnoxious or demeaning practice to ascertain her culpability in the death of her husband.

Another interesting aspect of the Tiv native law and custom as regards widowhood is the fact that a widow could be allowed to inherit the property of her late husband especially if he died intestate and she is loved by the kinsmen of her late husband.

This is also obtainable and applicable in a polygamous family; but where it is perceived that a rift exists in the family, the property of the deceased husband is shared among the women by the elders before they are subsequently handed over to their new husbands if they so consent.

Bridget Embem (not real names) a widow from Delta State testifies to this fact. Although she was the third wife of her husband, and custom demanded that she married one of her husband’s son, she was not put under any obligation to do so. Today, due to the effort of members of her husband’s community, she now happily lives with her children in one of the properties apportioned to her.

Speaking on the issue, a social commentator and Senior lecturer at the Federal University Agriculture, Makurdi, Mr. Frank Kyungun said the Tiv native laws and customs as regards widowhood are humane.
”She is allowed to live and posses the husbands estate and also allowed the option of remarrying either to any of the late husbands brothers or left to remain unmarried.

We do not subject widows to unhealthy practices but where it is found and confirmed that she had a hand in the death of her husband she would be excommunicated and expelled from the community’.

As for the Idoma tribe, at the death of a husband, the man’s kinsmen would consult the oracles to find out if the man was killed by the ‘ Aleku’ deity which kills a husband where a wife engages in extra marital affairs and the husband deliberately failed to disclose same to his kinsmen.
In this particular instance, the widow is chased out of her matrimonial home and banished from the community and not allowed to inherit her later husband’s property.
However, where it is discovered that the widow had no hand in the death of her husband, she is allowed a free hand to inherit and administer the estate or property of her late husband.

Speaking on her experience as a widow, a septuagenarian, Mrs. Janet Omanchi who disclosed that she lost her husband about twenty years ago, said  she lived happily with her husband before he passed on.
”Our marriage was blessed with six children; at a point I had to marry a wife for my husband who also had children for him and we all lived happily.
”Even after the death of my husband his property was shared among the children and we have been living happily because none of us the women were found culpable in his death.”  She said.

In the heart of the many injustices against widows in Nigeria is the issue of inheritance. In some cultures, women are seen as mere chattels and therefore, lack every right to inherit landed property when their husbands die. The fate of many women still lies in the type of marriage they contracted. Under the Nigeria Customary Laws, a woman is still considered as part of the properties of the man which can even be inherited. Therefore, logically speaking, a property cannot inherit another property. In Onwuchekwe vs Onwuchekwe, the Supreme Court affirmed the above position when it held that a woman is part of the properties of the man.

Also under the Islamic law, which is a specie of the customary law, according to the Holy Koran Surah 4 vs 12 inter alia states, as to the lot of wives that:-

‘in that which you (husband) leave, their (your wives) share is a fourth if youleave no child, but if you leave a child, they get an eight of that which you leave after payment of legacies you may have bequeathed or debts…..’

The debate on gender rights since the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, has shown elements of increasing sophistication and this reflects in the growing sensitivity to rights of women not just in marriage but in other aspects as well.

Under the statutory laws, rights of a woman to inheritance are secured upon death of the husband because the property of the marriage belongs to the wife and the children to the exclusion of all others. However, where the man left a will, the Will Act will govern inheritance.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), ratified by Nigeria and other 120 countries of the world, evidences Nigeria’s commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women especially cultural wise. Enugu and Edo State governments have led the pack in this fight to ensure women’s rights. Both houses of Assemblies have passed Bills eliminating all forms of discrimination against widows.

Only recently, the Supreme Court passed a judgment voiding the Igbo custom and tradition that barred females from becoming beneficiaries of family estate.

Addressing the issue, the Anglican Bishop of Okigwe, Rt. Rev. Dr. Edward Osuegbu, hailed this judgment saying “We cannot but rejoice with Igbo women, who won the right to inherit a share of their parents’ estate, following the recent Supreme Court judgment, which voided centuriesof old Igbo tradition that barred females from becoming beneficiaries of family estate, especially in their towns and villages”,

According to the fiery cleric, “the Supreme Court judgment is victory for gender equality in Nigeria”, even as he reasoned that the implementation was likely to be fraught with difficulties.

“I foresee problems in implementing the judgment as the inheritance custom is deep-rooted and likely to be resisted by menfolk in traditional communities”, Osuegbu said.

He passionately appealed to Ndigbo to embrace the Apex Court judgment, as well as respect the provision of equality for men and women on inheritance issues.

While appealing that the judgment should become “a convention and the norm” in the spirit of fairness to the womenfolk, the Bishop also pleaded that the judgment “should be used as a springboard for the elimination of discrimination and enthronement of the just and equitable nation envisaged in the Nigerian Constitution.

“We also expect this judgment to provide the impetus for the challenge of other discriminatory customary practices against women, widows, children and the handicapped in the society”, Bishop Osuegbu pleaded.

In his contribution a traditional ruler of Uwelle Amokofia in Igbo Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State, His Royal Highness, Igwe Ajima Nwodo, also hailed the Enugu State government for sponsoring a bill through the House of Assembly for the protection of the rights of widows. Igwe Ajima Nwodo who studied in London in the 60s said, “ the old practice which had subjected widows to incredible discrimination is giving way because of modern civilization”.
A church leader in Amaraku, Imo state, Pastor Venatius Okere added weight to the good wind now blowing through most Igbo states in favour of widows. Pastor Venatius Okere said that widows should not be treated as if they were responsible for their husband’s death.

Human Rights activist and Executive Director, of the Centre, International Centre for Women Empowerment and Child Development, Bridget Anyafulu Anyafulu, while decrying the plight of widows says, ‘we have to look at our laws again. Yes, the 1999 constitution provides that there will be no discrimination but is it working? The law provides equality talking about the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The law is just formal. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. The customary law has also not helped. First of all, the woman is a chattel. The woman cannot inherit the man’s property. She cannot administer the estate of her husband without the consent of the family. It is only the family that has consent. She has a limit even if she has 20 children for the man. The woman has no protection whatsoever. Unfortunately, women are used to prosecute such fraud against their fellow women (widows). It is a tragedy”, she lamented.

For Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, President, Women Arise, the issue of ill-treatment meted out to widows cannot be separated from the reality of the general situation that we have found ourselves as a people particularly, in this part of the world. Enacting specific laws she believes is the only way to guarantee the protection of widows since they are increasingly becoming vulnerable particularly in the rural areas.

Willie Workman Oga, Founder-Advocacy for Widows Empowerment Foundation (ADWEF) Lagos, says the plight of widows is why we are here. Having had a mother who suffered such maltreatment in the hands of my father’s family, it triggered me to become an added voice to that of widows in Nigeria so that all these stone age practices can be eliminated.

If the word of the Holy Book is anything to go by, ‘there is a time for everything under the sun; a time to be born and a time to die’. Death brings a final separation between two people who had loved each other and said ‘I do’ The passing on of a woman’s partner should not translate into hardship, hardship induced by family members bent on forcefully carting away properties of the deceased.

In many communities in Nigeria, women are still at the receiving end. Many of them have been dealt unfair blows. Many have been forced by circumstances to live lives totally far removed and demeaning from what they are used to on the passing of their bread winner.

With no one to turn to, widows have had to rely heavily on NGOs and religious organizations like Churches and Mosques for support and ease of their emotional trauma. ‘They need to be ministered to and reassured of a promising future’ says Pastor Itua Ighodalo of Trinity House, Lagos. Unfortunately, ‘some of them become prey to improper persons in the society’ he added.

With the example provided by the government of Enugu and Edo State, there is no doubt that there is hope for women who have lost their spouse. More states need to take inspiration from these two states. And in these states where widows’ rights are protected, government will do well to ensure that such laws are implemented where necessary.

Women will do well to desist from being custodians of these obnoxious customs and traditions. They are the ones who often enforce these laws in the various communities. Some day, the tide will turn and they in turn, will become widows. If these traditions remain, they will one day become victims.

As for husbands and heads of family, there is no harm in writing a will. It is not an invitation to death but a legal way to ensure the well being of your wife and children when you pass on.

For the traditional rulers, the question is, when will an end come for these obnoxious customs and traditions?

 


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.