Oppressive Widowhood Practices In Nigeria: Widows Are Entitled To Their Dignity

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Widowhood practices are those customs and traditions that are meted out on widows which constitute part of the funeral rites.

Widowhood has been defined by the Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Edition as: “the state or condition of being a widow“. It goes on to define a widow as: “a woman whose husband is dead, and who has not married again“.

The status of a widow under the Law depends on the type of marriage she contracted with her deceased husband because marriage is a necessary antecedent to widowhood.

There are basically, four types of marriage in Nigeria; they are:

  1. Court/Registry marriage. It is also known as statutory marriage. This type of marriage is governed by the Matrimonial Causes Act (MCA), 1970.

For a woman married under the Act, the Law has guaranteed her rights if her husband dies intestate (that is, dying without leaving a valid Will).

  1. Traditional/Customary marriage, which is based on the traditions and customs of the people in question.

A widow under customary law only has a right to inherit her husband’s property subject to her “good behaviour”.

In most customs in Nigeria, a wife cannot inherit her deceased husband’s properties because women are seen as chattels (that could be bought and sold at will) who are supposed to be inherited by a relative of her deceased husband – usually an elder or younger brother of her deceased husband.

If the woman declines, refuses or rejects to be “inherited” by any of her brothers-in-law, she will be made to face all manner of persecutions and humiliations from the deceased husband’s family.

  1. Christian/Church marriage based on Christian beliefs and principles.
  2. Islamic marriage, which is based on Islamic beliefs and principles.

It is important to point out that, most Nigerians contract traditional/customary law marriages before being subsequently married either in the Registry or in the church. The subsequent marriage in the Registry or in the church does not affect the previous traditional/customary marriage; it only complements it.

In the case of Mrs Alero Jadesimi V Mrs Victoria Okotie-Eboh (1996) 2 NWLR at 129, one of the issues for determination was the effect thereof when parties married under customary law subsequently marry under the Act. The former Chief Justice of Nigeria (C.J.N.), Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais stated thus in that case: “It is a matter of common knowledge that most people in Nigeria who contract marriages under the marriage Act undergo a form of customary marriage earlier as a matter of practice and adherence to the custom of their forefathers … it is never intended that the marriage Act should nullify the customary marriage or engagement but rather it would supplement (emphasis mine) the practice of custom“.

This shows that custom and tradition play a very dominant role in the life of Nigerians, and this is the major reason why widowhood practices are still prevalent despite modernisation.

If a woman loses her husband she immediately becomes the primary suspect for her husband’s death but if a man loses his wife he is immediately offered an appropriate substitute to comfort him.

I have even seen a situation where a Christian religious leader lost his wife and almost immediately members of the bereaved religious leader’s church held a meeting and came up with a resolution that: “it is not good for our G.O. (General Overseer) to be alone“; and further suggested that, a new wife should be married by their “G.O.”

Quite curiously, the same level of comfort, care and empathy is not shown to widows, rather a widow is expected to mourn endlessly for her husband and to remain “alone”. Some would even argue (to justify their actions) that, “it is a man’s world”.

The Nature Of Widowhood Practices

Traditionally, it is believed that a woman’s beauty lies in her husband – “the glory of a woman is her husband”; therefore a woman whose husband dies is considered a taboo. This erroneous belief forms the central pivot of all the widowhood rites,  practices and ceremonies. The widow’s ordeal begins immediately the death of her husband is announced.

Some of the harmful widowhood practices that widows are subjected to include:

  1. Wearing of black or white clothes. The intention is to make her unattractive and to inform the general public that she is mourning.
  2. Sleeping and sitting on the bare floor or on an old mat placed on wooden planks which would be burnt at the end of the mourning period.

The effect of sitting on the floor is dethronement. It means she has lost her position and entitlements in the family following the loss of her husband.

  1. Being refrained from bathing or changing her clothes for a number of days. Her hair will be left unkept or shaved.
  2. A widow is expected to go into seclusion for some days. While in seclusion, she is made not to talk to anybody until her husband is buried. Sometimes they are forbidden from touching themselves; they would be given pieces of sticks to scratch their bodies.
  3. Her food is usually cooked separately with broken pots and she is expected to eat from broken plates, fed by another widow. These broken plates and pots would be thrown away after her seclusion period.
  4. Going to the market very early in the morning to sell to herself.
  5. Washing her body in the dark or at a stream after the burial of her husband.
  6. Being made to take an oath or swearing with her husband’s corpse in order to “prove her innocence”. Sometimes, this is done by making a widow to drink the water used in bathing her husband’s corpse.
  7. In some extreme, bizarre situations a widow is asked by her deceased husband’s family to provide the money for her husband’s burial after seizing whatever property the man had during his lifetime from the widow.

Some native laws and customs have advanced certain reasons to justify these harmful practices against widows. These reasons include:

  1. To protect a woman from being harmed by the spirit of her deceased husband.
  2. For the woman to prove her innocence of her husband’s death.
  3. For the deceased husband’s family to ascertain if the woman had been pregnant as at the time the husband died so that they can claim responsibility and care for the woman.
  4. In order to sever the relationship between a woman and her deceased husband so that she will be free to remarry. This is done by shaving a woman’s pubic hair, her fingernails are cut and they are buried near the husband’s grave.

Widowhood practices have continued in most parts of Nigeria despite modernisation. Poverty, lack of education and greed are at the root of these oppressive widowhood practices. Some other reasons why these widowhood practices have not ceased to exist in some Nigerian communities are:

  1. Superstitious beliefs. There is a general belief in some customs and traditions that if these widowhood practices are not performed, the spirit of the dead man will not have rest.
  2. Failure of a man to write a will.

Sometimes, even when the deceased has a valid will, his relatives will insist on claiming his properties, especially where he died leaving behind a young widow and his children are still minors.

In some cases, where the deceased does not have any male children, his brothers despite the existence of a valid Will, would feel entitled to and claim all his property because of the primordial sentiments and beliefs that women are mere chattels, who have no right of inheritance in the family.

Our courts have always frowned at such customs and traditions that deny women the right of inheritance as being barbarous and uncivilized because they are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. An example could be seen in the case of Ernest Nzeukwu V Christiana Nzeukwu (1997) 7 NWLR or 512, 238.

It is even worse where the deceased has no surviving children or he has adopted children, who despite modernisation are usually seen as strangers by family members. Some of the deceased’s family members will always resist the inheritance of their brother’s property by “stranger(s)”.

  1. General lack of respect for women.
  2. A widow’s lack of financial/economic empowerment. Where a woman is jobless or has little means of income she will most likely be a victim of these oppressive widowhood practices but if a woman is economically empowered there is a slim chance that she would be made to go through these ordeals.
  3. Sometimes, the attitude of a woman towards her husband’s family before his death goes a long way to determine the way she is treated when her husband passes away. This would usually cause family members to dispossess the widow of her late husband’s properties and throw her out of the husband’s house. This is primarily done in order to punish the widow.

Most relatives see the death of a male family member as a unique opportunity for them to acquire wealth or to have control over family land(s). Therefore, when a woman loses her husband, she is primarily dispossessed of all her husband’s property. Her husband’s relations usually demand that the widow gives them the documents of her deceased husband’s properties which include lands, bank accounts, cars and other investments. Many widows are condemned into penury because they are disadvantaged in the distribution of their deceased husband’s property.

The loss of a husband is quite traumatic and a widow is subjected to a greater agony than the trauma of losing her husband. The in-laws who are supposed to give them succour and help in order to cushion the effect of their loss subject them to a lot of dehumanising treatments and untold hardships.

Legal Frameworks For The Prevention Of Oppressive Widowhood Practices

Most of these widowhood practices violate a widow’s human rights and legal frameworks have been provided locally and internationally for the prevention of these obnoxious practices.

In Nigeria, by the provisions of Section 34(1)(a) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), “every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly, no person shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment (emphasis all mine)”.

What amounts to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment have been defined by our courts. The Court of Appeal in the case of Uzoukwu V Ezeonu (1989) 2 NWLR Pt 104 at 373 defined torture as “mental harassment and physical brutalisation“. It defined inhuman treatment as “as acts done without a feeling of the sufferings of others“; while degrading treatment was defined as “such that lower the social status, character, value or position of a person“.

Section 42(1) of the Constitution provides that: “a citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not by reason only that he is such a person: (a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, place of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject to”.

It is quite clear that, the various widowhood practices are inconsistent with the above constitutional provisions and therefore cannot stand the constitutional test.

In May 2015, the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 (VAPP) was enacted to address among other things, harmful traditional practices meted out against persons generally and widows in particular.

Section 15(1) of VAPP provides that: “A person who subjects a widow to harmful traditional practices commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 2 years or to a fine not exceeding N500,000.00 or both“.

Section 20(1) of VAPP provides that: “A person who carries out harmful traditional practices on another commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 4 years or to a fine not exceeding N500,000.00 or both.

By the provisions of VAPP above, harmful traditional practices have been criminalised and an attempt to commit any of the above offences is also an offence in itself.

Unfortunately, the VAPP has a limited application to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT); it does not have the force of application outside the FCT. Consequently, it is only the High Court of the FCT that has jurisdiction to hear and grant any application brought under the Act.

Internationally, some legal instruments have been provided for the elimination of all forms of oppression against women. These instruments are:

  1. The African Charter On Human And People’s Rights.

Nigeria, as one of the state parties, domesticated the Charter by ratifying and adopting it following the enactment of the African Charter On Human And People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act No. 2 of 1983.

Article 18(3) of the Charter provides that states shall ensure the elimination of every form of discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions“.

  1. The Protocol to the African Charter On Human And People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Maputo Protocol”) which was adopted on the 11th July 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique.

Article 2(2) of the Protocol provides that: “state parties shall commit themselves to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct of women and men through public education, information, education and communication strategies, with a view to achieving the elimination of harmful cultural and  traditional practices and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or stereotyped roles of women and men

Article 20(a) states that, state parties should ensure that “widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment“.

Article 20(C) states that a widow “shall have the right to remarry and in that event, to marry the person of her choice“.

Article 21(1) recognises the rights of widows to inherit the property of their deceased husbands.

  1. Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)  which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 18th December 1979 and entered into force on the 3rd of September 1981.

CEDAW guarantees equality and freedom from all forms of discrimination by state and non-state actors in all areas of public and private life. It further guarantees freedom from discrimination based on sex.

Article 1 of CEDAW states that the term “discrimination against women shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women irrespective of their marital status on the basis of equality of men and women, human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field“.

Article 2(10) states that states should take all appropriate measures including legislation to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.

Article 5(a) mandates states to “modify the cultural and social patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices, customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women“.

Countries that have ratified this Convention are expected to domesticate it into their various national legislations. However, even though Nigeria has ratified it, no specific local enactment has been made pursuant to the provisions of Section 12(1) of the Constitution in order to bring the provisions of this Convention into force in Nigeria.

  1. Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (UDHR).

This treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 217 an (ii) of 10th December 1948

Article 1 provides that: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reasons and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood“.

Solutions To Oppressive Widowhood Practices

  1. There must be a timeous and conscious implementation of the various international Declarations, Conventions and Charter on the rights of women of which Nigeria is a state party. In order to give force to these international legal instruments and our constitutional provisions, the National and State Assemblies must begin to enact specific laws to prohibit harmful and oppressive practices that infringe on the rights of widows.

Such laws, should among other things make a wife and her children the heirs to a man whether the marriage contracted was statutory or customary and should be made applicable all over Nigeria.

The enactment of the VAPP is quite commendable but there should be an improvement on it.

  1. Non-Governmental Organisations whose objective/mandate is the protection of the rights of women should increase their assistance to widows through welfare and legal assistance.
  2. The society must begin to show empathy, love, care and compassion to widows. If this is done, individual families will not be able to maltreat and dehumanise widows for fear of a backlash.
  3. Women must be economically/financially empowered so that, they can be able to weather the storm upon their husbands’ demise.
  4. Constant education, orientation and enlightenment must be carried out in the various communities that have refused to abolish widowhood practices in order to encourage them to abandon these practices. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have a great role to play in this regard.
  5. Husbands should make their wives their friend and confidant. If your wife is your friend then, you must carry her along in everything you do including letting her know the details of your transactions, investments, properties etc (if any). It is sad to note that, many husbands do not confide in their wives (because they see them as a non-family member) but would rather confide in their brother(s). Some go as far as telling their brother(s) details of their bank account(s), making their brother their next-of-kin (and even letting them know) etc. Some of these “brothers” usually share this confidential information with other family members and the result is a false sense of entitlement by the extended family members; therefore when a man eventually dies the sole intention of his family members would be how to dispossess his wife of their late “brother’s wealth”.

For every married man, your wife should be your next-of-kin because she ought ordinarily to be the first person to be contacted in the event of any emergency.

Making a person who is not your spouse your next-of-kin is very dangerous and letting the person know that he/she is your next-of-kin is even more dangerous because of the erroneous belief that, the next-of-kin is the person entitled to the property of an individual upon his/her demise. This assumption or belief is very wrong because being a next-of-kin does not confer any right of inheritance.

  1. Husbands should make adequate provisions for their wives and children through the instrumentality of a Will. This will save the surviving family a lot of agony; but sometimes even where the deceased left behind a valid Will, there are still tensions and contentions over his property.

In order to save a surviving family the trauma of fighting over the property of the deceased with members of the extended family and to eliminate all tensions; I would suggest that a Trust should rather be created.

Under a Trust, Trustees are appointed and their duty is to Hold, Manage and Distribute the assets of a settlor (the person who created the Trust) on his behalf and according to his wishes.

Unlike a Will which takes effect after the death of an individual, a Trust can be created whilst an individual is alive. This type of Trust is called a Trust inter vivos (a “Living Trust”); it takes effect during an individual’s lifetime and it gives the settlor the advantage of direct control over the Trustees.

Some of the benefits of a Trust are:

  • It helps a settlor to plan his life before his demise.
  • It is used to finance the education of children.

This prevents a situation where the children of the deceased drop out of school or are forced to gain admission into cheaper schools due to paucity of funds.

  • It is used to preserve wealth for future generations unlike in a Will where an individual can squander all the bequeathed wealth which took the deceased several years to acquire.
  • It is used to take care of a spouse upon a settlor’s death.

It should be noted that, a Trust can exist alongside a Will. A testator (a person making a Will) may in his Will appoint Trustees to Hold, Manage and Distribute his assets for the benefit of his surviving family.

The primitive belief that, making a Will is tantamount to preparation for death must be discouraged. Some men call for a family or kindred meeting when their wives advise them to make a Will, accusing her of plotting their death.

Every person who is of full age and (legal) capacity can make a Will provided that he/she is of a sound mind at the time of making a Will. A Will may be altered, modified or reviewed at any time during the lifetime of a person.

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