By Blessing Onyima
Nigeria is home to about 15 million of the world’s 258 million widows. Widowhood in an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Nigeria, with three major ethnic groups and more than 250 minorities, is complex.
The state of widowhood has multiple elements – social, cultural, economic, and even historical. It comes with challenges, which led the UN to set aside a day every year (June 23) to look at the rights of widows and the issues that affect them.
In patriarchal societies, including in Nigeria, women are expected to be subservient. Becoming a widow often compounds the disadvantages. It creates a doubly marginalised subgroup and sometimes subjects women to dehumanising rituals and harmful practices.
Women suffer social, economic, and health constraints, compounded by low literacy levels, cultural beliefs and rituals. In Nigeria, widowhood comes with a lot of burdens – maltreatment, discrimination and stigmatisation.
Some traditions barred women from inheriting land and property. She would be traditionally dehumanised through compulsory mourning rituals like forced seclusion. Practices included a woman being expected to voluntarily or compulsorily marry her late husband’s brother or relative.
In some Nigerian cultures, widowhood automatically made a woman “unclean” and required “ritual cleansing”. She would be confined to a space for a specified period, forced to eat from broken plates and sleep on the bare floor. She would not be allowed to bath. She would be prevented from changing her clothes and from farming, doing house chores and going to the market during the mourning period.
A widow’s sexuality and reproduction were controlled in a social framework of gender inequality. Her emotional, health and psychological needs were disregarded. In some southern Nigerian communities, widows accused of killing their husbands were forced to drink or bath with water used to wash the husband’s corpse.
Some were forced to have sex with the corpse or kinsmen. In the 1970s, feminists became more active in empowering women in Nigeria. Some traditions are no longer practised, with the advent of Christianity and human rights movements.
In 21st century Nigeria, a widow’s right to inherit from her husband is recognised by statutory law. But it’s seen as normal for the widow’s in-laws to demand the husband’s cheque book, bank pin number and account details. In some southern Nigerian communities, widows are not consulted when matters concerning them and their children are discussed by their in-laws.
Widows and women alike are excluded from discussions about allocating land. Not everybody sees widows’ maltreatment as a violation of human rights. The husband’s family, kinsmen, and local women’s associations may all enforce harmful widowhood practices because they are entrenched in culture. But widowers tend to be free from demeaning social expectations.
In eastern Nigeria, some widowers voluntarily mourn their late wives, but it’s notcompulsory. They don’t have to wear mourning dress. They are not monitored and can remarry immediately.
Law making and policy formulation are dominated by men in Nigeria, influenced by male values, world views and privileges. But in my view, all gender-based violence disguised as “culture” and “ritual” must be proscribed.
Nigeria must enforce and domesticate all international protocols protecting widows, women and children.
* Onyima is a senior lecturer of sociology and anthropology, Nnamdi Azikiwe University.
** This is an edited version of his article that was first published on theconversation.com