Recently, the world marked the International Widows’ Day which was initiated to address poverty and injustice faced by widows and their children in many countries. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in 2010 and is observed annually on June 23.
Available statistics shows that there are presently over 258 million widows around the world, who between them have 585 million children. Over 100 million widows live in extreme poverty struggling to survive. Around 81 million widows in the world today have been abused while about 1.5 million children belonging to widows die before their fifth birthday. Widows have been targeted victims of rape, torture and murder. Others are forced into prostitution and remarriage.
In Nigeria, there are about 25 million widows across different cultures in Nigeria many of whom pass through harmful traditional widowhood practices which have attracted the attention of the global struggle in general on violence against women. Sufficient evidence suggests that widowed women are severally affected financially, psychologically, sexually and socially. The severe effects of widowhood in Nigeria are rooted in cultural and traditional practices as well as the socialization processes that condition women to passivity and dependence. These conditions have erected enormous difficulties for women to creatively and stoutly initiate new robust relationships with both men and women in social and economic spheres upon widowhood. The debilitating conditions of women are worsened by societal factors that instrumentally feed into the situation ranging from loss of livelihood upon widowhood, and the fact that “widows are less likely to remarry than widowers”. Rather than sympathize with them they are subjected to near inhuman treatment in traditional ritual rites and practices such as solitary confinement, defacement, disinheritance, a relatively long mourning period of limited but active socio-economic activities and outright ostracisation. The most obvious effects are deepening poverty, acute stress and depression, loss of identity and self-esteem. The widowhood conditions expose women to psychological and physical abuse as well as a whole range of health related problems
In certain parts of Nigeria, the maltreatment of widows is common. In-laws and the community subject them to physical and emotional abuses such as being made to sit on the floor; being confined from a month to one year; having their hair literally scraped off with razors or broken bottles; not being allowed to bathe; being made to routinely weep in public; being forced to drink the water used to wash their husband’s corpse; crowned by the loss of inheritance rights and eviction.
However, widows under Muslim law suffer less because inheritance issues are addressed according to Islamic injunctions. The widow observes the Takaba i.e a four-month, ten-day mourning period in seclusion talking to no one and sitting in a place. However, there are accounts of widows who are barred from leaving the room where the corpse was laid, sleeping on a comfortable bed, taking a normal route to the toilet, observing personal hygiene, wearing long hair, moving about, taking normal bath, seeing the inside of the grave , eating pounded yam, fowl, goat meat etc.
After mourning, a widow is free to remarry within or outside the family. On the issue of inheritance, the manner in which the property of the deceased is shared is explicitly stated in the Qur’an. However, human factors, especially the relationship of the widow to her in-laws, education of the apportioning parties and cultural leanings have brought about injustices in property sharing.
The recent upsurge in terrorism in north-eastern part of Nigeria has given rise to growing number of widows who form a special category of women ( displaced persons camps) with socio-economic, psychological and health related problems as a result of their changed social status but which they have never found a place in social policy in Nigeria. Definitely, the plight of widows should not be allowed to remain unattended to.
One effective but non radical way off challenging the effect of deleterious cultural practices that dehumanize widows are broad based education. Education is necessary to empower women with knowledge about the dangerous implications of practices meted out to them by the society to which they are obviously partners with the males. For instance, a widow deprived of deserved inheritance of economic resources on account of an old-fashioned and irrational customs or traditions, and is further restrained or restricted and “forced” to perform certain ‘rites of purification’ is indeed, an infringement on the fundamental human rights of the woman in a modern society. It may also result in loss of reasonable income by the family and a tendency for school going children to drop out of school.
Secondly, policy makers should ensure that extant laws reflect radical modifications of such that tend to exact unacceptable pattern of behaviour by modern standard on the women.
Thirdly, government must ensure that education for the women; especially the girl-child is pursued vigorously and made compulsory up to at least the senior secondary school level.
In addition, existing laws which prohibit widowhood practices including maltreatment and dispossessing a widow of her inheritance should be effectively enforced throughout the country.