It sounds unbelievable but true. In this 21st century, with advancement in science and technology, many women are still being forced by tradition and culture to undergo obnoxious widow’s rites, which violate their fundamental human rights. In this report, JULIANA FRANCIS, takes a look at the experiences of widows, conflicts between the Nigerian laws, culture and tradition
It took Mrs. Confidence Achinefu (37), exactly seven years to get over her depression caused by her husband’s death, and alleged series of physical abuses from her in-laws. Today, the brokenhearted, downtrodden woman has a new glint in her eyes.
She said: “All those times that my brothers-in-law were flogging and beating me, I never knew they were making me strong. The physical abuses were all because I refused to accept to marry one of my husband’s brothers. Less than a week after my husband died, while he was still in the mortuary, a meeting was called where I was ordered to pick and marry one of my husband’s siblings. They said it was their tradition. The idea was allegedly being orchestrated by my late husband’s sister, Chikodi. It was a terrible culture. How could that have been possible?”
The Achinefus were 10; five men and five women when I was married to their family. Louise, my late husband was the first among the male children, followed by Innocent, Nnamdi, Augustine and Obioma. “I was asked to marry Nnamdi, but just in case I didn’t like him, I could pick between Augustine and Obioma. That was the instruction.”
Confidence, who is from Mbaise in Imo State, just like her late husband, explained that the only tradition she knew, were those that she had observed. She had to wear black clothes for a year and on the day of her husband’s burial, another widow, had to clean-shave her head. The mourning clothes had to be removed and burnt after a year. But Confidence was shocked when her mother-in-law asked her to cut her head again after the mandatory mourning period, which she vehemently refused.
The first meeting to discuss Confidence’s marital status was held in Imo State between Confidence and Louise’s families. It was held in the palace of the Igwe (king). Confidence recalled: “After the burial, they called another meeting that I must accept their condition and marry one of the brothers. The pressure was too much, and to get them off my back, I told them I had rather marry Obioma.
“But the truth is that Obioma, the last child, was too small for such a task at the time. I was instrumental in bringing him to Lagos. He used to be a good boy. I didn’t really want him, but I wanted them to let me be. I needed to mourn my husband. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the brothers insisted I must put my acceptance into writing.
“Right from the onset, my family members didn’t support the idea of me marrying one of my husband’s brothers. In fact, even the Igwe told them that that part of the culture was outdated. He said that they should allow me to marry whosoever I wanted. He also said that I should be allowed between a year and two to mourn my husband before thinking of remarrying. My father-in-law asked them to leave me. He said that I should be allowed to go to any of the brother to let them assist me to have children for Louise if I was still interested in having children for my late husband. He insisted that I shouldn’t be forced.”
Before she finally decided to leave her matrimonial home to her in-laws’, taking her two girls along with her, Confidence had allegedly repeatedly been beaten. She said that most of the beatings were done in the presence of her six-year-old daughter. The youngest daughter was just two-months-old then. She knew it was time to take off, when she and her eldest daughter became scared of her brothers-in-law. After the death of her husband, who was 42, Confidence got to understand the true meaning of, “fortune is an unfaithful bitch.”
Before Louise died, Confidence was the apple of, not just her husband’s eyes, but his siblings’ and parents’. She and Louise lived at Unity Estate, Ayobo, Lagos, in their personal building. She was the mistress of the sprawling two bungalows; one is the main building, the second is located at the back of the compound.
Today, sadly, fortune has turned its back on Confidence. She now squats with friends whenever she comes to Lagos State. Seven years ago, she was a shadow of herself, scurrying and hiding from her in-laws, fearful of everyone. She ran to the village, gathered her scattered wits and ebbing self-esteem and with the help of her brother, started a business. She’s now back in Lagos, seeking for justice, asking her in-laws to leave her matrimonial home, as well as to return one of her husband’s companies to her.
She said: “I returned to Lagos because I want to fight. If I had continued to live in that house with them, they would have killed me. I left but I’m back, stronger to fight them. I want them to vacate my house and if they want the business, no problem, but they should give back one of the companies to me; I don’t mind if they keep the one that deals on heavy duty materials to themselves.
“I want the second company, the pumping machines’ company. The first one is the money spinner; but I don’t care. I just want something to take care of my children. Before Louise died, we were both running the companies. But his brothers seized all of them and asked me to do my worst. I had to run away because I realised my life and that of my children were in danger. The only condition given to me was repulsive and against everything that is right.”
Louise, a businessman, died in one of his companies located at Iyana-Ipaja in 2012. He was reportedly died after allegedly fighting with someone. His first daughter was six-year-old and his youngest was just two-month-old when he died. The widow said she was still grappling with the shock of his death, when the in-laws started talking about her marrying one of them.
“I met my husband, Louise, on January 7, 2004. We met where I used to sell call cards. We dated for a year and then got married on April 19, 2005. We had a traditional wedding. When we
started dating, my husband’s younger brothers were living with him and the relationship was cordial. But Nnamdi had travelled overseas. I never had any issue with my in-laws. They, including my mother-in-law, treated me like an egg. Before they collected anything from Louise, they would come to me. I was shocked at how they changed after his death. They said there wouldn’t be peace until I accepted to do what they wanted.
“It became too much for me. I had to take them to Ayobo Police Station. The policemen told me that it was Igbo culture which I had to accept. One of them from Anambra State said that after his father died, he inherited his property and married his stepmother. He said that the only way for me to inherit my husband’s property was for me to marry one of his brothers. He said I should go and do what my in-laws asked me to do.”
She also recollected that while preparing for her husband’s burial, the in-laws asked her to bring money. According to her, when she went to bank, she discovered that her husband used their first daughter as his next of kin. The in-laws borrowed money on her behalf for the burial and asked her to refund the lender later. When she finally returned to Lagos after the burial, she discovered that her husband’s brothers had taken over their house. They were able to gain access through one of her sisters-in-law, Oluchi, a divorcee, living with Confidence and her husband before he died.
She said: “During all those meetings, I repeatedly told them that I didn’t want Nnamdi anywhere near my husband’s business. He’s not a straightforward person. I rather preferred Obioma, but their sister, Chikodi, said that I preferred Obioma because he was young and could easily be manipulated. The following day, we went to shop, I told them that I would prefer to handle the pumping machine business, while they take charge of the heavy duty material business. But they told me that my days of dictating what goes on, were over.
“Nnamdi and Obioma started controlling the business and money. I couldn’t get money for transportation or feeding of my children. They refused to give us money. They then started cooking separately. They asked me to stay at home. When I complained of lack of money, they started giving me N2000 every week. My baby’s Golden Morn alone was at least N700. In fact, I had to use money contributed to me by church members to offset my first daughter’s school fee of N25, 000.”
Confidence decided to go to Office of the Public Defenders (OPD). She and her brothers-in-law were invited for a peace talk. It was at the meeting that the brothers alleged that Confidence wanted to sell Louise’s buildings, using the documents in her possession.
“They wanted me to give them all documents to my husband’s property and bank accounts. In fact, Nnamdi broke into my bedroom with a weapon and took the keys to my husband’s companies,” she alleged.
OPD advised Confidence to return to her matrimonial home. She and her brothers-in-law were given a new date for a meeting. Two days to the meeting, Nnamdi and Obioma allegedly struck. “Nnamdi and Obioma stormed into my room and woke me about 4am. They accused me of stealing Nnamdi’s phone. I didn’t know what they were talking about. They started beating me. Obioma joined in beating me; that was his first time. I was shocked and disappointed.
“Before that, their sister, Oluchi, left the house, saying she was going for Morning devotion, a kind of evangelism. Indeed, to avoid running into them in our house, I had taken to keeping bucket in my room at night. Rather than go to the bathroom, I urinate in the bucket. I didn’t come out of my room, let alone to steal a phone. I was shouting as they attacked me; my daughter ran out and started shouting before neighbours came to our rescue.”
While these dramas were playing out, Confidence’s first daughter stopped schooling. She had to take the girl to her elder brother’s place in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where the man enrolled the girl in the same school with his only child. Soon, another tragedy struck. Confidence’s brother, who had been assisting her, lost his wife. Confidence had to withdraw her daughter while her brother assisted her with some money with which she used to start a little business. With the proceeds from the business, she enrolled her daughter back to school.
One day, she received a strange call from Chikodi. She said: “Chikodi called me that I was causing trouble, that my late husband attacked her, Augustine and Nnamdi. She said that my husband turned into a spider to bite Nnamdi.”
However, Confidence’s story is not an isolated one. Hundreds of widows in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, are continually being forced to undertake obnoxious rites. Although this is 21st Century, many, because of their staunch belief in the culture and tradition of their villages, have continued to practice these detestable widows’ rites without recourse to national laws. Many states and villages continue to be slaves to culture and traditions and many widows, especially in Nigeria, bear the brutes of these traditions.
Many widows are often forced to marry their late husbands’ brothers, shave their hair and wear mourning clothes, even though these practices only serve to make the women to continue in their sadness and depression, with their lives practically being on a pause. Some of them are not allowed to inherit their husband’s property and the situation becomes worse if such a widow didn’t have any male child for her late husband. In many of these cultures, it is believed that “Women cannot inherit land or property.”
Many of them are kicked out of their husband’s houses along with their children and their husband’s property taken over by their (husbands’) siblings. In the quest to take possessions, some of these in-laws do not bother to ask how the widow will be able to take care of her children.
According to investigations, most widows, especial those with wealthy husbands suffer more in the hands of their in-laws and are often threatened with these practices to kill their spirits. Many give up at the first stage of the battle with their in-laws.
Mrs Chioma Ifezua (51) is another widow presently fighting to get possession of her husband’s property from her late husband’s brother. She had already been accused of being responsible for her husband’s death and had been asked to take an oath, which she stubbornly refused. Her case is puzzling considering the fact that she has a male child for her late husband. One would have expected her in-laws to leave the property for her 15-year-old son.
Chioma got married to Benedict Ifezua in 1998. They also had a white wedding. They are both from Anambra State. The couple and their children lived in Ajao Estate, Lagos, until the death of Benedict. The couple had three girls and a boy. Today, the first daughter is almost 19, while the boy is 15. Benedict died on March 28, at 53. Before his death, the couple had acquired two hotels, Entrasit Hotel located in Ogba and Nice Touch hotel located in Okota.
While Benedict was alive, he preferred to live at Entrasit Hotel, where he oversees the running of the place. Chioma said that they were both dedicated Christians. When he moved into the hotel, he went with some vital documents of their property.
Chioma, fair complexion, with a pretty face without makeup, speaks in a hush tone. She said: “When we finished building the hotel, he said there was a room he liked in the hotel and he would like to stay there. My husband hired a manager called Pastor. He was the person controlling my husband’s businesses. My husband died this year. He was in the hotel at Ago-Palace Way when he died. After his death, while he was yet to be buried, his younger brother, Guide, came and took over everything.
“Guide was the first person that called when my husband died. He resides in Onitsha, but he came to Lagos and rushed to the hotel and took over everything. He took all the documents and the key to my husband’s hotel room. He started telling people that my husband was in coma, while my husband was already dead. When he went to the village, he told people that when my husband was dying, he told him that I should not be at his burial. He said that my husband also gave him one bag and when he opened it, there was a key. He claimed that my husband told him to put somebody in our compound in the village, who would be taking care of it.
“He also said that my husband told him to take care of our children and that he had a Will in which he instructed him to take charge of my husband’s assets. He said that when my son gets to 35, he would then hand over the property to him. He also told them in the village that I killed my husband. He called my kinsmen and theirs and told them I would have to take an oath to prove my innocence. My family members said there was no problem as long as he would take an oath to prove that everything he said was true. In the next meeting, both kinsmen rejected my taking an oath and they also said that I should be allowed to bury my husband.”
Chioma said when it was noticed that Guide was trying to bury her husband by excluding her from the burial rites, she went to her church. The Bishop called a peace meeting involving her kinsmen and her late husband’s. At the meeting, Guide was told to return all documents and other things, which were Benedict’s to Chioma.
“He agreed. But when I called him to return the documents, he promised, but till date he was yet to hand them over. He is with my husband’s two cars, his phones and even my children’s passports. All these items were in my husband’s room at the time of his death in the hotel. I came to Lagos and went to our hotel at Ogba; I was told that Guide was with the keys to the rooms. When I called him to say that I want to take over the hotel, he said that he had told me not to go to the hotel. All I want now is to be in charge of my property. My children are in school and will need money for their fees and other needs. My eldest daughter registered for a quiz competition, in which they will take the winners abroad) but she cannot proceed with it because their passport is in my brother in-law’s possession,” she added.
However, it is different narratives in different states. Indeed, in a village in Abia State, a widow without a child is never allowed to inherit her husband’s property. But how strong and effective are laws that protect widows in Nigeria?
The national coordinator of the Network on Police Reforms in Nigeria (NOPRIN), Okechukwu Nwanguma, who Confidence and Chioma ran to in their need for justice, promised to link them to probono lawyers. Reacting to the incident, Nwanguma said: “This is a form of violence against and discriminatory practices against women. These women need to be assisted, not just for them, but for many other women who are suffering similar injustice in silence. It’s a culture we must fight to uproot to protect women.
“Despite judicial pronouncements and enlightenment efforts, ingrained traditional cultural notions and practices which view and treat women as second class citizen persist. Widows and their children are still subjugated and deprived of their rights in marriage by their brothers in-laws who dispossess them and deny them access to their late husbands’ fathers’ estate.
“There are many cases of such gross acts of discrimination and deprivation which render many widows poor and unable to take care of themselves and their children. Institutions of government established to assist poor and vulnerable groups gain access to justice don’t seem to help matters apparently because they are headed by men who still hold such prejudicial and discriminatory notions about women and by women who have accepted their own subjugation.”
Mr. Louise Alozie, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), reacted differently. He said: “I am not aware of any law known as obnoxious laws. What I know is that the constitution prohibits discrimination and there is what we call, ‘Married Women’s Property Right’. And for such practices to occur, it depends on the type of marriage that the couple has. So, under the Married Women’s Property Right, any property acquired during the course of marriage belongs to both parties and the onus is now on the woman to assert her right.
“A woman, who has children for instance, is believed to have laboured alongside her husband in order to sustain their family. And during this period of labour, nobody ever attempted to edge her out of the shares or dividends. So, I think it’s unfair to deprive the woman of her husband’s properties simply because the man is no more. Whatever practice it is, it’s totally unacceptable. However, if there are such laws that encourage such practices, I am not aware. And to the best of my knowledge, such laws cannot be valid and therefore cannot be allowed to stand.”
The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Star Advocacy for African Women and Children, Mirian Obioma Okoro, Esq, also said: “It’s difficult to believe that too many repugnant practices against women, particularly widows, are in existence up till date. These widows are usually subjected to a lot of inhuman treatment in the name of ‘customs and traditions.’ Some of them are made to drink the water used to wash their husbands’ corpses as a means to prove that they don’t have a hand in the death of their husbands. Some communities lock the widows up at home for a couple of weeks while others send them to the forest to spend some days to prove their innocence.
“Certain communities even force these widows to take oaths before terrible shrines. In most cases, they forcibly take the properties belonging to the widow’s late husband, leaving the widow and the kids stranded and financially handicapped.”
According to Okoro, in Star Advocacy for African Women and Children, which is a Non-Governmental Organisation, “we are currently handling a matter, involving a widow, who was made to leave her husband’s house as a result of her refusal to get married to her late husband’s brother. She currently resides with her kids in an uncompleted building infested with snakes and other dangerous reptiles.
“We can all agree that these customs are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, and should be tackled with immediate effect and as such, offenders should be seriously dealt with. There’s no doubt that there are laws protecting the rights and dignity of citizens as provided under Section 38 and Part IV of the 1999 Constitution as amended. There are also laws pertaining to violence as embodied in the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP). However, I would suggest that greater punishments be imposed to permanently deter people from getting involved in such inhuman treatments.”
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