*Almanah Hope Foundation Founder reveals what heightens abuse of widows, recounts her chilling experience with Police authorities
By Ebele Orakpo
According to Dr. Omadeli Boyo, Medical Director, Pinecrest Specialist Hospital and Senior Pastor of Lagos-based Chapel of His Presence, in Africa when someone, especially a husband, dies, the question is: Who killed him? While in other climes, the question is: What killed him?
Any wonder then that women go through hell in the hands of in-laws and society when they lose their husbands. As a result of this belief that the dead was killed diabolically, scientific and medical researches that would have helped to improve the health sector, are neglected most of the time.
In this report, Saturday Vanguard spoke with Mrs. Hope Nwakwesi, a widows rights advocate, social entrepreneur and Founder, Almanah Hope Foundation, a non-profit organisation defending the cause of widows in Nigeria, having been a widow for the past 28 years. She shares her experience as a young widow, what led to the founding of Almanah Hope Foundation and the unfair treatment of widows by society. Excerpts:
Mrs. Ola whose husband died suddenly, narrated how her husband’s relatives wanted to cart away their property immediately she lost her husband. Unfortunately for them, most of the property in the house beUlonged to the university where Dr. Ola was a lecturer so they took their personal effects, including her children’s clothes!
In her case, Mrs. M whose husband was sick for a very long time, had spent almost all their savings on hospital bill and the man died in the end. According to her, in her husband’s community, if a man dies without a child, their tradition demands that the woman goes back to her parents immediately after the burial.
For Mrs Ogbu, in her community, widows are served food in broken plates like dogs/outcasts.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly declared June 23 of 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.
Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi, President of Medical Women’s International Association and also President of Widows Development Organisation WiDO said that although things have improved in terms of treatment of widows, but more needs to be done.
Almanah Hope Foundation
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. So based on her personal experience as a widow, Mrs Nwakwesi founded the Almanah Hope Foundation strictly to help widows.
“When my husband died, I did all the traditional burial rites. My hair was shaved with razor twice; first, on the day of his burial; immediately after his burial. I was taken to the backyard and the women shaved my hair. One year after, I went back to the village for the Iyipu akwa(removing of the mourning clothes. Traditionally, I wore three clothes for one year, one black, two white.)
“This time also, my hair was shaved and the hair and the three clothes were packed together and burnt. One thing I can tell you is that those traditional burial rites are human imposed. Some people do it because it is something that has been transmitted to them.
“Some do it because it is culture and they don’t know how to change it but some people now make it lighter because they really don’t believe in it but they are not the ones to stop it. Most of the women do it for different reasons; one of them is personal vendetta.
“The truth is that when it comes to burial rites, the problem still lies with the women because even if the men made the law, they are never there to supervise it. It is the women that carry it out to the letter. Let’s assume that the men made the law, we are the implementers; we can make it lighter for ourselves if they are not being vindictive.
“We are all caught in this, even me, because it is what I grew up with, I believed it. I remember part of the things you hear in our culture is that if you die in your mourning clothes, then you are the one that killed your husband So all through my one year of mourning, (then it was still one year) wearing black clothes, I was praying to God.
“I wasn’t praying to God to live but that even if I was going to die, let me remove the mourning clothes before I die. That was my personal prayer because that was what I was indoctrinated into.
“That indoctrination comes into the society too because eventually when I returned from the burial, (my husband was a police officer), I saw that an ejection letter from the Police was waiting for me They had allocated the house to another person so by the time I returned, less than two months after his death, they had given me an eviction letter to move out of the house and so began the struggle. I didn’t have money; this is even with me working as a teacher in Police Chidren’s School.
“Despite all I did – begged, cried and lobbied to see if they could reconsider but they told me that they couldn’t give me the house. I told them I was a teacher in their school and my husband just died but nobody paid attention to me and the authorities didn’t have any standing principles that they could work with.
“It was every man to himself or maybe they had but it wasn’t implemented because when you look at the way they threw me out of the barracks and the way I fought to stay, another person, a colleague of mine that the husband died within the same barracks, stayed for years; you cant help but ask what the standing principle was.
“Was it because the husband had connections and officers that could cover for him?”
“It is said that when it rains, it pours. While all these were going on, barely three months after my husband’s death, the authorities were yet to give me any of his entitlements, not even the burial stipends. It all became a daily struggle as I moved from one officer to the other and in the process, the next thing I faced was sexual harassment.
“Disgustingly, some offered to help me only if I would sleep with them. It became another journey from that point.
“One day, I went to work and saw my letter of suspension without pay, pasted on the notice board. This was barely three months after my husband died. I had no query or warning for gross irresponsibility that requires suspension.
“I remember people asking me whether they didn’t know that my husband just died? I said they were theones that buried my husband. They gave him 21-gun salute. They performed all the ceremonies but they had not given me a penny not even on personal or professional ground. So if they didn’t know my state with all these how else would I say it?
“I remember that day, as I saw the suspension letter, my feet caved in; I almost fell to the ground but for the firm grip of my friend.
“I wept profusely, saying to my late friend who was a colleague, that I was going back home; that if they can do this, they will certainly throw my kids and I out of the Barracks as they have been threatening. They continued to place a new ejection letter on my wall.
“With all these going on, I tried to appeal to my boss to reconsider the suspension; he said if I wanted the job back, I should sleep with him. At this time, my husband was barely four months in the grave, my head was shining like pear, I was fully dressed in black, looking at him and weeping in agony, I walked away.
“I needed to get a house but had no money. I began to pursue his gratuity because as at that time, they had not paid his gratuity. It became a struggle between me and the man that wanted the house. One year after, I moved out. I decided again to go and appeal for my suspension to be cancelled, the man insisted I must do what he wanted me to do before he could cancel the suspension. I simply ignored him and left, praying that God will remove him from that position I just ignored him and left.
God answered my prayers
“Fortunately, to show you the human rights violations that widows experience, till date, when people ask me, I don’t have any letter for the suspension because it wasn’t given to me; it was only pasted on the Notice Board and a copy sent to the Salary Division because they immediately stopped my salary; that was June 1994, but I have the letter of cancellation.
“Eventually, God heard my prayers as the boss was transferred. I had gone to the office first and when I got there, (God works in mysterious ways) he started telling my colleague that there was one woman that came here saying she is a widow; he didn’t listen to her and he cannot trace the woman; so my colleague called me and said I should go back to the office. I went back and the man listened to my story and asked them to cancel my suspension and pay me all my money.
“That was how I started again after about one year without a job.These are some of the things that eventually led me into founding Almanah Hope Foundation. In a bid to survive, through an in-law, I made one or two contacts who were giving me supply order but when one of the persons giving me jobs got transferred, the person that took over cancelled it, saying he was not going to give it to a woman not to talk of a widow!
“Although progress is being made on the issue of widowhood in our culture, more needs to be done especially in terms of policy and implementation. The gatekeepers must be involved, education and information are key. The media must do more in story telling In all the things I went through, what I can tell you is that our silence and secrecy are the main reasons for the abuse and continued exploitation of widows’ rights.
“The human rights violations that are still prevalent in our communities are human factors hidden under culture because the government (traditional and political) has not enforced an action with visible evidence of implementation. That is why you see a community y where two widows are treated differently, as the degree of rites and practices is dependent on the in-laws’ humanity You find out that widowhood practices depend on families.
“My in-laws didn’t give me problems because they had more enlightenment so even when the very few wanted to seize the opportunity to abuse and exploit me, they couldn’t because they were afraid of the enlightened ones. The worst they could do was the burial rite and wailing which I carried out to the letter.
“I am a police widow; I experienced a fair share of abuse and exploitation. The widows of uniformed men are grossly not considered especially the junior ranks.
“Even the paths to collect their late husbands’ entitlements are filled with corruption, exploitation and sexual harassment, even with the so-called pension scheme! When my husband died in 1994, it was pure analogue era; but seeing widows go through almost the same things I went through in accessing their late husbands’ entitlements is pure wickedness.
What are the entitlements of our police officers and how can they be structured in the system to facilitate easy and immediate collection by family? I have police and military widows whose husbands died over eight years ago but are yet to collect their gratuities; they have journeyed to and from Abuja, spending money and even bribing officials.
“Widowhood remains the most hidden and veiled area of human rights violation in Nigeria. At Almanah Hope Foundation, we have initiated Nigeria Widows database, a quantitative and qualitative demographic database and the Widows Protection Bill, a legal framework targeted at widows, will help in both government and gate keepers’ interventions.”