Cruelty in the name of culture
Is it not devastating enough that a woman looses the man she hoped to spend her life with to the cold hands of death? Why should she be subjected to inhuman treatment in the name of culture? Every day, women become widowed in Nigeria. Many become instantly at risk of experiencing humiliating and dangerous treatments in the name of widowhood rites and some even stand the risk of loosing their lives as a result of these practices.
These widowhood practices vary from one community to another. Many of these practices violate a woman’s human rights. Yet women go through them. Many times without protesting. Why? They are often in a state of shock when all of this is happening. Their grief is still fresh. Therefore, many cannot speak up for themselves in that critical moment. The practices can be divided into mourning practices and inheritance practices.
Though Mrs Olutomi Sakeye lost her husband twenty eight years ago, anger and pain is still evident in her voice as she recounts her experience, “ When I learnt my husband was dead, I fainted and when I woke up I was dressed in black. They removed all my dress and jewellery and put me in a black dress, pitch black!” , she shakes her head angrily and continues “that was the first thing that blasted my mind. They removed my clothes and jewellery, without my consent! Without my knowledge! I woke up saw it and I was so sad!”
Many women like Mrs Sakeye all over Nigeria face even more trauma while they are just coming to terms with the loss of their husbands. Culture stipulates that a widow go through certain traditional mourning rituals. She is expected to perform these rites as a mark of respect to her husband. Many practices are also rooted in the belief that a marriage does not end at death, therefore rites are performed to terminate the marriage. In many cases, the wife is a accused of killing her husband. She is expected to perform some rites to prove her innocence. Amongst both Yorubas and Igbos , the corpse is washed the widow is given the water to drink. If she lives after drinking this (unhygienic and possibly poisonous) substance she is deemed innocent. The fact that men are not expected to go through these rites when they loose their wife’s shows that these cultural practices are rooted in discrimination against women.
Amongst the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria, a widow is to be clad in black for the period of her mourning which lasts between forty days and one year. She is expected to sit and sleep on a mat or on the floor and remains in confinement for the first seven or twenty one days during which she can leave the house only to attend her husband’s burial. During her confinement, in some communities she is not expected to bathe or change her clothes. Among the Akure people, the woman would be expected to unweave her hair and have it cut. In some Yoruba communities, she is expected to eat only from broken plates and cook with broken pots. Mrs Kehinde Olatunji, an hairdresser says “They don’t cut hair in my husband’s family but I had to weave my hair into six parts. They bought a black cloth for me, that was what I had to wear for a whole year. For the first twenty one days I sat and slept on a mat.”
Amongst the Igbo of South Eastern Nigeria, the mourning period takes between one week and a year depending on the tradition of each community. The woman’s head is shaved totally with razor or knife. She is often ostracised and required to sit and sleep on a mat or on the floor for a stipulated period of days or weeks which varies from place to place. In some cases she is expected to eat from plates and cutlery which must not be washed until after the mourning period. She is to wail at specified times in the day for three of seven days as a mark of respect for her late husband. This wailing must be done or the woman might be beaten by the husband’s female relatives to produce the wailing. She is required to wear black throughout the period of mourning and some communities insist that she must not change her attire during the period leading to his funeral.
There are two major rites practised in some parts of the South East which amount to widow rape. The first is the Aja Ani rite. Some 12 days after her husband’s funeral, the woman is escorted to a place by the aja ani, the priest where he performs a cleansing rite for her. He has sexual intercourse with her whether she consents or not. The other ritual is the Ichi iyi ili (fetching water from ten streams). This rite is performed by leading the widow to a stream where she has sexual intercourse with ten men. This is regardless of whether she wants to or not. After this every part of her body is shaved by a female in-law, then she bathes and goes home. If she refuses to go through these rites, the woman is not accepted into the society. She cannot buy or sell and is totally ostracised.
In North Central Nigeria, before the husband’s burial, the widow’s pubic hair is shaved in public. She is not allowed to attend his burial. A part of the corpse or all of it is washed and the woman is given the water to drink. She is confined in a room where food is thrown at her. She is also expected to wail periodically.
These practices put the lives of women at risk. The sexual cleansing and shaving (often with unsterilised razors or blades) of her hair places her at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. They compound the emotional trauma of widowhood and degrade women. Nigerians cannot afford to allow this to go on as every married woman is just a tragedy away from becoming a victim of these practices.
“His brothers wanted to inherit me and I said no. They made me suffer for that, they came and took all our property, everything, even the bed, fan, wall clock , everything” says Mrs Omodogbe in Yoruba with a grim face as she tells of the treatment meted to her by her in-laws.
The inheritance practices are rooted in the belief by many that the wife herself is a property that can be passed around. Under Yoruba customary law, a wife cannot inherit her husband’s property. The reason was stated by a federal judge in the 1957 case of Suberu vs Sumonu that: a wife could not inherit her husband’s property since she herself is like a chattel to be inherited by a relative of her husband
Traditionally, when a man dies, the wife could be “inherited” by one of his brothers. This practice was so that the man would care for the deceased’s family; in some cases such relationships were not even consummated. However, these days, greedy relatives use it as a way to access the late man’s wealth. This is a practice is becoming a thing of the past as more women reject it. Most of the women interviewed revealed that this suggestion was made to them but they refused to comply.
Amongst the Yoruba’s, the usual practice is for the property to be divided based on the number of children. Some of the property is also given to the deceased’s relatives. The wife has no rights to the property; she has access only through her children, especially if they are male. It is a usual practise for close relatives of the deceased to hold the properties in trust for the children, especially if they are young. The widow is not allowed to hold the property in trust this since she herself supposedly has no stake. This leaves the family in economic despair in a situation where the mother has no money of her own. This is because many times these relatives spend the money on their own family, sometimes selling lands, houses and other property which they are to hold in trust.
Amongst the Igbos, the property goes to the deceased’s sons. If there are none, the daughters and the wife cannot lay claim to the property. They could be chased out of their home with only their clothes. The property taken in this two cases (Yoruba and Igbo) ranges from houses, land to personal effects like shoes and clothing.
In the North the usual practice is to divide the property amongst the male children, except for amongst Muslims where the male child getting double of whatever a female child gets.
Undoubtedly, these practices reduce many otherwise affluent or even comfortable women to abject poverty. These women have to fend for themselves and their children. They have to start from scratch as what they built with their husbands is snatched from them. These practices cause poverty and lead to many children being deprived of education and other basic needs.
Mrs Omodogbe says “It was difficult with my little children, I can’t even speak about everything…There is no work, nothing I haven’t done in my life. I have sold firewood, maize, anything. I look back and wonder where I got the strength to do so many things.”
Mrs Kehinde Olatunji reveals that after her husband’s relatives sold his property and kept the money for themselves, the family was left in serious financial difficulty . “My children had to help with selling to augment my earnings, After a while they had to stop their schooling and make it part time she says.
Apart from the financial implications of this treatment of widows, it also has psychologically damaging implications. The widow is thrust into it as the absence of her spouse the loss becomes all at once sudden and total.In her grieving process, no matter how much she wants to, she cannot take in the scent of him again by burying her face into his favourite shirt.
Widow’s Fellowship: a source of hope
The women interviewed for this article all belong to a widows group simply called Widow’s fellowship. It was established in 1985 as an arm of Love Fellowship, a Christian fellowship. Since then, women have come together every month to pray worship, encourage each other and share their experiences with each other. In spite of all they have been through, these women express a strong faith in God and in a better future. They have come out strong by helping and supporting each other.
As Mrs Agbaje says with a smile Our meetings encourage me, there are times when I am depressed but at our meetings sometimes my spirit is lifted by another widow’s testimony. Then I believe things will be better.”
Mrs Sakeye says she found hope and friendship through this group of women: “Until I joined the widows fellowship, I thought I was the only widow in the world, I was so alone. The group has boosted my morale” .
A Way forward: In their words and experience
Not all the women of the widow’s fellowship were treated with cruelty after they lost their husband. They shared their stories too. And those who faced dastardly treatment offer suggestions on how to put a stop to these practices. Mrs Oni was lucky, she says “ My husband’s family did not insist on anything. They did not take anything from us. I decided by myself to wear black. Even though my husband’s family is poor, they did not take anything from us, they even give us whatever little thing they have.” .
According to Mrs Ekuchie “ My husband died shortly after his father when he saw what his mother went through, he said that when he died nobody should tell me to put on black clothes and cut and hair. . . when he died, my family and church members were with me so nobody did anything.”
The widow’s family and friends can help her by being with her and insisting that none of the rites be done. The help and presence of family helped Mrs Sakeye whose family insisted that she would not continue the mourning rites because of her health.
Mrs Agbaje believes it is important for men to make a will, she says “I suggest that people should make their will before they die, give your wife and lawyer a copy. Young men should make their will. That will help their wife in case they die.”
Mrs Oni doesn’t totally agree with this as she says, ”Will may help some women but there are men who don’t make their wife the next of kin but if a woman has her own job, it won’t matter whether the will favours her or not”.. She instead advocates that women should have a source of income that is independent of their husband. She states “some women will go to school and the husband will say they shouldn’t work, they want to suffer in the nearest future anything can happen… any woman who has a certificate or a trade who now gets married and the husband says she should not work. She should not agree o! She should have her own job and be making her own money”.
The women pointed out that specific laws must be made to protect widows and ban the inimical practices out rightly. Mrs Oni was emphatic in this call “A law should be made so that when a man dies . . . his family will not suffer. It should be a very strict law.”
The women hit the nail on the head as there is no federal legislation that directly addresses these wide spread practices. Organisations such as the Widows' Development Organization (WiDO) have been working assiduously to rectify this. In 2001 it sponsored legislation against harmful widowhood practices. The next year, the Enugu State Assembly signed the bill into law; this law was the first of its kind in Nigeria. The organization is now working to extend the legislation throughout the country.
What is evident is that these practices are against the rights of a woman. For no reason should a woman be forced to undergo such degrading practices in this time an age. It achieves no results in any case as Mrs Ige states rhetorically of the practices “It’s a bad idea, The culture . . . is it going to wake up the husband?”
Whatever a widow wants to do in remembrance and honour of her husband should be her choice not something harmful to her wellbeing that is enforced upon her. Laws should be made that will not allow individuals to hide under the guise of culture to maltreat women. It is important that the Nigerian society begins to as Mrs Ige advocates Treat a widow like a normal somebody.
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