Widowhood:The story of invisible women (3)

  • Women and children are the two most vulnerable groups affected by harmful traditional practices. These beliefs, according to ISIOMA MADIKE, who concludes this three-part series of the dilemma widows face in the South-east region, reflects the values held by members of a community for periods spanning generations

·         ‘Natives argue that their culture is superior to the law’

From Adaobi Okeke of Trans Ekulu community in Enugu State and Mercy Iwuala of Umukaran-Umudurugho neigbourhood in Isiala Mbano, Imo State, come the same tale of woes and pains.

Like those other widows, Okeke and Iwuala were denied their rights and were subjected to other inhuman treatment after they lost their husbands. “When my husband died, his family asked me to marry one of his younger siblings.

And when I refused, they ordered me out of my matrimonial home along with my little kids. Since then, I and my children have remained refugees in our supposed homeland,” said Okeke, who lost her husband in 2012.

Iwuala’s story is not any better. She was, since her husband died in 1998, logged in a legal battle with in-laws over her husband’s property. The family had, before now, accused her of killing their brother.

“They forced me to sleep with their brother’s corpse for days. That was the instruction from the native doctor they brought in to perform some rituals. It was after my innocence was proved that they conspired to deny me and my children what rightly belonged to us.

We were forced out of my husband’s home and his property confiscated,” Iwuala said amid intermittent sobs. In another instance, a woman from Ezeagu community was ejected from the family home and all her late husband’s land and property were taken by her brothers-in-law.

Another along with her children were ostracised by her husband’s people because the woman did not shave her hair after the death of her husband.

Also in Nenwe, a widow who lost her husband in 2011 is currently fighting to save her late husband’s property, which she is about to lose because she is childless. She was locked out of her husband’s house in the village since his death.

In like manner, another widow from Awha neighbourhood was forced to kneel in front of her husband’s community members on allegations that she killed her husband. Incidentally, the consequences of not catering for children the dead left behind usually come back to the society. This may be why some advocate for special intervention through sustainable policies, in terms of rights and other issues that would enhance the widows’ physical well-being.

For instance, the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, His Lordship, Most Rev. Dr. Paulinus Chukwuemeka Ezeokafor, condemned these traditional harmful widowhood practices in the region. He called it “pagan and satanic cultural practices”, which, according to him, the body of Christ is not relenting at seeing becoming a thing of the past.

He confirmed that in most communities in the East, widows are subjected to several inhuman treatments including but not limited to accusing them of killing their husbands. “This is inconceivable, unthinkable and unbelievable lies.

That a woman would kill her husband only for her to inflict perpetual pains upon herself is simply an infantile and demonic reasoning. In some cruel cases, the corpses are washed for them to drink; they do this without minding the medical implications, particularly when one is not sure of what might have killed the man. “But, the Catholic Church is not sleeping over this.

The church is doing something because we never and cannot, no matter the intimidation, succumb to fetish practices.

As a church, we do not believe this and cannot be part of it. We encourage our various women societies that have taking it upon themselves to fight this injustice,” the Bishop said.

Ezeokafor told this reporter that the Catholic Church has done a lot in this regard. According to him, the church has, over time, stood for the widows and has been firm in its resolve to constantly fight these obnoxious traditions.

“It has not been easy because the Igbo culture does not encourage women to own property. But, I am also happy because various governments in the region, especially Anambra State, is doing something about it. The state Assembly is very serious about this and that is encouraging enough.

Unfortunately, nobody accuses the man when the wife dies. It is, regrettably, a patrilineal society. They see it as a man’s world,” he said. Chairman, Senate Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development, Senator Helen Esuene, echoed the same sentiment.

She said that it is natural that whatever a couple achieves be available for their children after their death and urged traditional rulers to put an end to the hateful practices surrounding widowhood that offer no value to the society. According to Esuene, “cultural and traditional practices constitute more than 70 per cent of the problems of widows in Nigeria, particularly in Igboland Marriages contracted under the Native Law and Custom encourages the brother of the deceased to administer the estate of the dead, a duty, which surviving relatives often carry out to the detriment of the widow and her children.

“Even where marriages were contracted under the Ordinance, cultural practices will be experienced, especially, where the widow is ignorant of her right or is financially incapacitated to fight the legal battle. Unfortunately, It is the conflict in the marriage law that is at the root of the inheritance problem of widows,” she said. In like manner, Mrs. Ekaette Akpabio said that “our plural legal system, which encourages the application of statutory law side by side with customary law, only undermine efforts to achieve fundamental rights for women.”

She added that “as a signatory to global charters on fundamental human rights, we must ensure that all laws in our country measure up to those charters.”
It was such context that made a Lagos-based rights activist and lawyer, Emmanuel Nwaghodoh, to advocate for an urgent need to provide for widowhood rights in the Nigerian Constitution. “

The Constitution did not specifically provide for the rights of the widow, not even in the human rights section of it. That is not good enough. I think it’s time for a radical revolt against these devilish practices.

We can’t allow it to continue in this 21st century. It is high time we realise that this gruesome treatment is generally unfair to women, who suffer it,” Nwaghodoh said Coordinator, Women in Peace and Communication Initiative (WOPEC),a non-governmental organisation, Grace Nnadozie, said that the stories of these hapless widows are distressing.

“Working with them has really opened my eyes to the unbearable traditions in various Igbo communities, especially in Anambra State. Though, the state promulgated laws in 2005 during Dr. Chris Ngege’s tenure as the governor of the state, it has not, in my opinion, been very effective.

I said this because I am yet to see anybody convicted via the law.

“The natives would always argue that their culture is superior to the law, which is really strange. Apart from that, the umu ada’s are not helping matters.

They are the ones implementing these awful practices as a way of getting back at their brother’s wives, particularly if there was a strained relationship with the woman before the husband’ death. Again, those that claimed to be educated are the worst culprits,” Nnadozie said.

A retired Supreme Court Justice, Niki Tobi, was unequivocal when he said that “though, both the widow and the widower experience basically equal pains for the death of the partner, the Nigerian widow suffers many deprivations, some of which are inhuman, barbaric and uncouth.

This discriminatory and parochial approach in the practice of widowhood in Nigeria destabilises and vexes Nigerian women and rightly so. He did not stop at that. But said, “apart from the fact that the discriminatory practice violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the traditional practices are a taboo in the civilised world and should not find a place in any decent society.

“It is difficult for a human being in this day and age to believe that a wife is forced to drink the water used in bathing the corpse of her husband, all in the name of custom.

This and other widowhood practices are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and should be thrown out from society as they do much harm to womanhood,’’ he thundered. The erudite retired justice made it necessary and compelling for laws to be enacted at all levels banning harmful traditional practices in the society.

Perhaps, his was an awakening call as it did not take long before some states latch on it. Enugu and Anambra states, for instance, have taken the lead on this. While Enugu passed its Law Prohibiting the Infringement of a Widow’s/ Widower’s Fundamental Human Rights on March 8, 2001, under Chimaroke Nnamani as the state governor, Anambra, on the other hand, promulgated hers in 2005 during Ngege’s stewardship.

The laws of the two states are similar in content and nature. They stipulated that no person for whatever purpose or reason shall compel a widow/widower to permit the hairs on the head or any other part of the body to be shaved. The laws also prohibit victims to sleep either alone or on the same bed or be locked in a room with corpse of the husband/ wife.

They equally specified that such individuals should not be prevented from receiving condolence visits from sympathisers during the period of mourning. Apart from all that, drinking of water used in washing the corpse of the husband/wife and weeping and wailing loudly at intervals at any time after the death of the husband/wife, except at one’s own volition or involuntary action were also banned.

Besides, they empowered Magistrate Courts in their domain with jurisdiction to try summarily any offence under these laws. Regrettably, implementation of these have been everything but operative.

This may be why the Federation of International Female Lawyers (FIDA) urged women to continue to fight against widowhood practices in Nigerian society for their psychological and emotional well-being. National coordinator, Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA), Mrs. Funmi Falana, has also called on Nigerian women not to sleep on their rights, a position shared by chairperson of the Caring and Uplifting Widows and Orphans Foundation, Mrs. Comfort Attah. Imo first lady, Nneoma Nkechi Rochas Okorocha’s pet project Women Of Divine Destiny Initiative (WODDI) and its various arms such as She Needs A Roof Project (SNARP) and Nneoma Kitchen, has been commendable in her quest to help ameliorate the sufferings of widows in Imo State. Her counterpart in Ebonyi State, Mrs. Josephine Elechi, also has her pet projects, Mother and Child Care Initiative (MCCI) among others, which equally has been affecting the lives of women and children in the state. Unfortunately, their efforts have not been able to bring the needed change of attitude in this regard.

According to findings, the widow’s mourning of her departed husband in Igboland is viewed as a very important tradition, which the living spouse must observe in honour of the dead. When the husband of the woman dies, the mourning begins at that moment of his final breath. The bereaved wife runs about wailing at the top of her voice.

A prominent feature is the intensity of wailing, weeping and hysteria, which death generates or is expected to generate. The children would join in the wailing, together with other friends and relatives of the family. In their bawling, they would regret a big loss as they recount the deceased’s life achievements, his love and faithfulness, a good, honest, reliable brother, husband, father or uncle.

After this stage, the wife becomes the main focus in terms of mourning the departed husband. Much demand is made of the wife in terms of mourning to show her concern for the man’s departure from earth. The wife must be made to tie cloth on the body of the late husband (ijebo di akwa).

In some part of Igboland like Onitsha, the divorced wife of the man must return to mourn the man and do posthumous reconciliation with him in the presence of umu ada; otherwise she is believed to be in danger of the ghost of the deceased man The umu ada are the enforcement agents and decide how sever the mourning should be.

They would surround the widow, commanding her to make sure she obeys the rules of mourning rites. They may sit her on a mattress with pillows and cushions around her or sit her on a plain mat or even the bare ground. Umu ada accept that she is crying loud enough for their brother or they may sneer and jeer at her and in serious cases of dislike, beat her up.

From that moment, the widow is believed to be unclean, and likely to contaminate herself and others. Therefore, no one touches her except her fellow widows, who are equally believed to be defiled.

She is given a piece of stick to scratch herself in case of natural body irritation, and oil palm chaff (avuvu nkwu) to wash her hand periodically in order to reduce her uncleanness.

She is also not allowed to eat any food bought for the funeral ceremony. It is feared that she will die if she eats such foods.

Hence, her food during the funeral ceremonies is cooked separately. The days before the burial of the man are always horrible for the widow as she is made to stay in the same room with the corpse where she is required to be waving away flies from perching on the fast and progressively decomposing corpse.

She is mandated to sit down and raise an early morning cry before anyone is awake and this continues till the day the husband will be buried. Her most painful ordeal, however, occurs at night before her husband’s burial.

Source: New Telegraph

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