By Ebele Orakpo
Mrs. K has just lost her husband. She is distraught. Her three children aged 5, 7 and 9 years gathered around her, wondering what was going on. Friends and neighbours were coming to console her. A few hours later, a man and a woman walked in and suddenly, the woman walked straight to a wailing Mrs. K, raised her voice and said: “Wicked woman, you have killed my brother so that you will inherit his property.
That will never happen! Over my dead body!” Mrs. K cringed on hearing these words. Instead of comforting words, she was being ‘stabbed’. Before she could recover from that, another ‘bomb’ exploded. This time from the man who said: “Where are the documents to my brother’s house? Go and bring the keys to all the cars. We have come for our brother’s property.”
Welcome to the world of the widow which seems to cave in because of the death of her husband.
Two years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 23 every year as the International Widows’ Day. The declaration calls on member-states and other international organisations to end all negative practices associated with widowhood.
Like someone rightly said, in the western world, when someone dies, the question is: ‘What killed him?’ But in most parts of Africa, the question is: ‘Who killed him?’ As a result, when a man dies, the assumption is that the wife must have killed him so she is made to pass through hell.
Speaking with Vanguard recently, President of Enugu-based Widows Development Organisation (WiDO), Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi, expressed joy on the journey so far, and called on governments, individuals and corporate organisations to do all in their power to make life more meaningful for these widows and their children. Excerpts:
The medical doctor/gender and human rights consultant said her foray into the world of widows started as a result of two incidents in the early 1990s.
“I had visited two bereaved people, one a man and the other a woman. I was uncomfortable with the fact that the widow was treated differently in comparison to the widower and I was curious to know the reason behind it,” she said.
Curiosity, they say, killed the cat but rather than her curiosity killing her, it led her to do something positive to draw the attention of the world to the pitiable plight of widows, especially in Africa. She started by carrying out a research on widowhood practices in four South Eastern states of Abia, Anambra, Enugu and Imo in 1995.
At the end of the research, she presented her findings at the Medical Women’s International Congress in The Hague, Netherlands, whereupon she was encouraged to start a non-governmental organisation.
Dr. Nwadinobi, the sub-Saharan Africa regional chair of the United Nations NGO/Dept. for Public Information Executive Committee continued: “I found out that the general belief is that a woman is blamed for her husband’s death. Certain punitive mourning rites and practices are performed supposedly to dissuade women from killing their husbands.”
She noted that some of the harmful practices widows go through in Nigeria included having their heads shaven, usually with a rigid sharp object such as a broken glass soda bottle; being forced to sleep with their dead husbands’ corpses; being forced to cry loudly for the entire village to hear; and drinking the water that was used to clean their husbands’ dead bodies. At the end of the research, she summarised the findings as the 3Ds thus: “Disinheritance- a situation where the widow and all her belongings are taken over by her deceased husband’s relatives.
Dethronement- a woman’s status is said to improve when she marries, this status is lost when her husband dies. Therefore, she is forced to sit on the floor and go through de-humanising rites because of this lowered status. She loses her dignity in the process.
Defacement – It is generally believed that a woman’s beauty is for her husband. When he dies, she is forced to look very unattractive and unkempt.”
Having discovered the problems, Dr. Nwadinobi did not rest on her oars as she went further to seek solutions. First, she got together with some other women interested in widows’ rights and registered an NGO called Widows Development Organisation (WiDO).
According to the former national president of the Medical Women’s Association of Nigeria, the timing of the birth of the NGO coincided with the Beijing World Women’s Conference and the raised level of awareness of women’s rights. WiDO embarked on a massive awareness campaign with assistance from the British Council and also started a database of existing groups of widows and individual widows.
Speaking on the successes recorded so far, Dr. Nwadinobi said the humble efforts of WiDO began yielding results when in1997, members of WiDO were appointed on to the Enugu State Widows Welfare Committee with her as chairperson. Their task was to find out the prevalent practices in the state. The report of the committee showed that harmful traditional widowhood rites were still being practiced in Enugu State especially among the uneducated and pagans.
In 1998 at the Medical Women’s International Congress, Nwadinobi put forward an urgent statement for the elimination of obnoxious practices against widows in Sao Paulo, Brazil and in 1999 in the USA, she presented a paper on the findings at the Association for Women in Development (AWID) forum.
In June 2000, the soft-spoken lady was invited to be a panelist at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in the UNIFEM Panel in New York, USA. “I presented a paper on The Myths, Rituals and Prevalent Widowhood Rites. I had told them that culture is a way of life passed down from generation to generation, but when culture ceases to be a way of life and instead becomes a threat to human existence, it is better defined as torture.”
On March 8, 2001, WiDO experienced a major breakthrough when a bill on widow’s rights sponsored by National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) was passed by the Enugu State House of Assembly.
The bill was later signed into law on June 28 of same year by the state Governor.
So far, so good, but Dr. Nwadinobi believes it is not yet over until it is over. Although a law was passed on International Women’s Day, March 8, six years after WiDO was founded, to outlaw the harmful practices against women in Southeast Nigeria, more still needs to be done as 17 years later, women are no longer asked to sleep with their husbands’ corpses or drink the used water but women’s heads are still being shaved. However, efforts are ongoing to eliminate this practice as well.