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Plight of Nigerian widows

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victim reveals how widowhood practises derailing women on a daily basis

Wicked widowhood practices have continued despite laws and customs put in place to mitigate such. Today in Nigeria, widows are still being humiliated, dehumanised and abused via wicked customs, rites and rituals that make one question whether the present government care about women.

With fewer women in legislative roles, the chances that the issues of widows would take frontline are fast dwindling especially because the number of widows in political offices is negligible. This is not unconnected with the fact that society strips widows of dignity and many United Nations initiatives do not make widows a major focus.

In Nigeria, customary laws have provisions for levirate inheritance, which is the “take over” of the widow by any of her deceased husband’s male sibling or relative. Though this is fast eroding, some cultures deprive women who decline the right of place as members of the deceased’s extended family. Some take over the children or force the widow to return the bride price. In a funeral ceremony witnessed in Delta state, the burial was to be discontinued because the woman failed to come with her wedding ring. Prayers and appeal saved her from having to return to bring it from the Northern part of Nigeria where she lived with her husband before he died in a railroad accident. The custom there is to bury the widow’s wedding ring with the deceased. This custom is meant to diabolically and psychologically make women bound to their deceased husbands and so not free to remarry.

Customary laws include a provision that the family of the deceased husband takes care of his loving spouse and children (where they have any). This has become a role for sincere friends with a number taking up the education of the children but often only for a short while. Instead of providing care, comfort and compassion, some families exploit, debase and abuse widows, rob them of priced possessions and drive them to the streets.

Roseline, a widow of Akwa Ibom descent was chased out with her daughters having only the clothes on her back. She had to crash in with a family friend before heading out of Lagos to live with her uncle. Her first daughter has now been taken by the family with threats that the second one would also be taken since she has refused to sign into the levirate order.

It was reported in the news last year, how a widow gave up the ghost after drinking bath water from her deceased husband’s corpse. Another widow, Stella Ogheneovo, in May 2017 lamented how she was forced to disclose the assets her husband left behind to relatives fighting to inherit his property. Thugs were sent to beat and terrorise her and her five children in the hope of intimidating her. She was also forced to drink the water used to wash her deceased husband’s corpse to prove her innocence in his untimely death. Stella was admitted to hospital with severe stomach pains after the incident.

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A clan in Edo customarily compels widows to cut hair, wear black or dark coloured clothes and sit on the bare floor anywhere from 7-40 day.

Omolola Omoteso whose beloved hailed originally from Oru Ijebu recounted how her husband’s corpse was moved to another hospital while he was sick. In retrospect, she realised it was to ensure she had no access. With many widows alone, lonely and in grave grief, they are rather weak and have no resources to fight or advocate for justice.

Wicked widowhood rituals include sitting naked to wash in a stream, returning home naked after cleansing and in some cases obligation to dress in black. The widow is deliberately made to look dirty and ugly, labelled untouchable, defiled and banished from receiving gifts or handshakes.

A widow from Ilaje narrated how the women who were appointed to supervise her debasement and shame of sitting on the floor would have her sleep on the bed when night falls.

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly has unfortunately not focused much on widow abuse. CEDAW is an international bill of rights for women instituted on 3 September 1981 and has been ratified by 189 states. Nigeria signed the bill on April 23, 1984. Dr Theodore Obiageli Okonkwo, a lawyer and gender rights activist, was Nigeria’s elected representative to the United Nations’ Committee on CEDAW. Her tenure ended in 2016, sadly she passed away in 2017. Dr Oby as she was fondly called was the founder and Executive Director of the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRDDOC), an independent, non-governmental organization, NGO.  She, along with a Ugandan, represents Africa on the Steering Committee of the Coalition for the  International Criminal Court and member of the ICC Gender Justice Team and Advisory Board member of Global Fund for Women. Where are other women advocating for justice?

Mourning rites and rituals differ from tribe to tribe but they are imposed on the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, the urban as well as rural people. It is a tool of debasement by men against women popularised by the women. Take the issue of Dr Omolola Omoteso nee Famuyiwa that has gone viral online;  who is well read and wealthy. Omolola, whose family and friends began a campaign for her tagged #JusticeforOmolola was abused both in Nigeria and the USA. According to her, Lagos State Hospital and Lagos State Judiciary (LSJ) were complicit in the abuse she experienced because a death certificate was issued with the wrong details to the wrong person and bank certificate was issued in her name without her knowledge. This was possible because any lawyer can approach the courts of law in Nigeria, claim he is acting for a widow and go-ahead to begin the process of applying for a letter of administration, provided he or she has a death certificate. Though she eventually collected a copy of the National Population Commission death certificate, the details put in by her brother-in-law, Adeleke Omoteso, indicate Bola Omoteso lived in his house and could not be changed. Omolola who did not consider the error in address done on the basis of motive used it to file for a letter of administration in the USA. All was well until Adeleke filed a lawsuit in which he alleged that Bola Omoteso who remained a citizen domiciled in the USA changed domicile based on details which he doctored in the death certificate. The case continues in the USA with Omolola likely to lose all if the government of Nigeria remains aloof.

She decries, “presently there are no clear rules or process of obtaining a death certificate. Another error in the process is the filling of forms for the issuance of the death certificate. Anyone can presently apply through the hospital. Since Nigeria has no database of citizens, any name claimed to be a resident of Nigeria and any address written is acceptable”. You can even bribe your way into getting a death certificate and autopsy result for someone still living, she claims.

A journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity lamented how her deceased spouse’s siblings broke into her safe to steal the death certificate while she was still in mourning. They used the document to transfer properties owned by herself and her husband but in her husband’s name alone, to themselves. It is a known fact that many Nigerian women, despite matrimonial laws, go through marriage without their names written on anything, even properties built and cars bought with their own earned income. Widows who have the money lack the strength to pursue cases.

Omolola has lost a 1.5M$ property to Wells Fargo Bank. Many have asked how this could have happened in the USA where the rights of women are protected.

According to Omolola, her deceased husband’s brother’s wife (sister-in-law) collected the hospital copy of death certificate for Bola Omoteso. This document, which already contained wrong residence details filled by Adeleke Omoteso, was then used by their attorney friend to apply for a letter of administration in her name in Nigeria. The lawyer lied that he was representing Adeleke and Omolola but had up to that point never spoken to her or sought her consent. The judiciary in the USA does not believe this possible. They also do not believe that an application which led to the issuance of bank certificate in widow’s name could have been done without her knowledge. Holes in Nigeria’s Probate Laws made this fraud by impersonation possible.

“A letter by the Lagos State Government to the Bergen Surrogate’s Court New Jersey would solve this abuse but they have refused to step into the matter to clear the air and save me from abuse”.

Dr Omolola Omoteso has taken up advocacy and campaign to share information on the plight of widows and how people can prepare for inevitability. She has organised colloquiums, celebration, counselling, medical services and training. In addition, she continues to support widows with funds while she herself remains homeless.

“I am calling on the Federal Government of Nigerian and USA Government to arise and be counted as widows’ heroes of JUSTICE”, Omolola declared to WO.

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