The bitter truth: widowhood & custom

Facts on widowhood – There are about 300 ethnic groups spread across the 36 states in Nigeria and each has a custom that discriminates against widows

The widows go through some widowhood rites to prove her innocence to her Husbands’ family that she is not responsible for his death

At the death of a man, his wife automatically becomes the first suspect

Some of these practices include the widow sleeping in the same room where the body of her late husband is laid for three to seven days during the mourning period

Some communities go to the extent of forcing the woman to drink the water used to bathe her late husband to prove her innocence to the general public

Sometimes the widow is forced to shave her hair to prove her innocence

They are restrained from public movement and would have to wear dark or specific clothes for a period of three months to one year or more

In some culture they are forced to marry their husband’s brother or else they will lose the custody of their children and their husband’s properties

While in some they are driven from their matrimonial homes and denied their inheritance. They are left to suffer with their children on the streets

Widowhood Challenges – How Much Do You Know?

A widow is simply a woman whose husband has died and has not remarried. Marriage for most couples as it is meant to be is till death do us part. Who goes or dies first in the marriage may be the topic for analysis another day, but often times a party goes first. When a man (husband) of the marriage dies, he leaves his wife a widow whether she has had children for him or not. A woman on the death of her husband is left in a state of confusion, sorrow, and bereavement. As many African societies particularly the Nigerian society tradition demands she is left at the mercy of her in- laws to decide her fate.

Upon the death of married man, the wife becomes the first suspect and she has to go  through some widowhood rites to prove her innocence to her husband’s family that she is not responsible for the cause of his death and also to the society at large who will always believe that she has a hand in the death of her husband. For a woman who is married under the customary law, she is more prone to the dictates of her in-laws on the death of her husband, particularly where such a man dies without a will. What is, however, alarming is that even marriages under the Marriage  Act are not exempted from this kind of treatment particularly as it pertains to the sharing of the deceased man’s property. Widowhood practices all over Africa and particularly Nigeria have a lot of effects on the women involved. Whether negative or positive depending on the measure and level of treatment melted out to the victims who usually have nobody coming to their aid as even the widow’s personal family will advise the woman to quietly go through the process without complaining.

Generally, the treatment of widows around the world varies but unequal benefits and treatments generally received by widows compared to those received by widowers are alarming in most part of the world. A man that loses his wife do not have to go through proving his innocence but rather everybody becomes concerned about who will take care of the man since his wife is no longer alive. However, the reverse is the case in the instance of a woman when she loses her husband. Ordinarily, when a woman loses her husband, the society should rally round her and support her and her children but the reverse is what we see in most communities in Nigeria. Most widowhood practices in the Nigeria society are archaic, barbaric and very cruel. This is probably due to the fact that in some cultures, women are seen as mere chattels or properties of their husbands who do not have any form of right and can even be inherited on the demise of their husband by other male members of the family respectively. Most customs believe that if a woman is a property that can be inherited upon the death of her husband, then she cannot be seen to inherit her husband as a property cannot inherit a property.

Widowhood rites is a major issue that many women have to contend with at the death of their husbands.  Some of the widowhood rites and rituals practiced in the country varies depending on the locality and the community. Some of these practices include but not limited to the widow been made to sleep in the same room where the body of the dead husband is laid  for three to seven days, she is refused from having her bath or to have any clean up for seven days without having a change of cloths, made and forced to sleep on a mat for about seven days in a secluded room or a particular spot is created for her to stay during initial mourning period which could be for three to seven days depending on the locality. Some communities go to the extent of forcing the woman to drink the water used to bathe her late husband so as to prove her innocence to the general public.

These communities treat widows like an outcasts as they are restrained from public movement, will have to wear dark or specific cloths for a period of three months to one  year or more. The woman is left at the mercy of the extended family members who will begin deliberation on how to share the children of the marriage among themselves and perhaps the widow herself becomes the target as the younger men in the family may want to marry her in the name of protecting their late brother. In as much as the remarriage may work in favour of the widow, often she has no option as to the issue of the remarriage since the interest of her children is at stake. These rites and rituals carried out will leave the woman’s sense of dignity demoralized and punctured for a long time.

The victims of these practices aside the widow are the children of the marriage if any who will have to face the harsh reality of life soon after the death of their father. Where the property of the deceased man has been carted and shared by the extended family members of the deceased, the financial and economic reality dawns on them and this might begin to affect the education of the children and social welfare especially where the children of the marriage are not of age. The effect of the harsh treatment melted on the woman in the presence of the children may also affect the children psychologically and also their relationship in the larger society.

Her dignity is punctured, her self worth is devalued, her person is injured. The trauma involved in all of these torture and inhuman and degrading treatment most times leave the women emotionally injured which might not heal for life or take a longer period to get herself back into the society. What is more alarming is that most times it is  the female folk that subject their fellow women to this inhuman treatment in the name of culture more particularly because they have also experienced it when their own husbands died. As such they take it upon themselves to subject other widows to the same treatment perhaps to vent the anger and retaliation from their own personal experiences.

Widows maltreatment can be abolished

The provisions of  chapter 4 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria as amended provides for the fundamental human rights of the citizens of Nigeria. Section 34 (1) (a) of chapter 4 provides thus:

“ Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly

No person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.” Widowhood rites and rituals in most communities in the Nigeria society is clearly a gross violation of  section 34(1)(a) of chapter 4 of the 1999 constitution as amended. A woman subjected to drinking the water used to bathe her deceased husband, had her head shaved, made to bathe on her husband’s grave by 12am in the midnight so as to prove her innocence on the death of her husband, cannot be subjected to anything more inhuman or more degrading than that.