On June 23, Nigeria joined the rest of the world in marking the International Widows’ Day. This year’s occasion afforded the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Rock of Ages Empowerment Foundation to put smiles on the faces of many widows. REGINA OTOKPA reports
he sat about two metres away from the other women, apparently brooding over her numerous challenges. Here name is Josephine Okeke, a 45-year-old and mother of seven children, who has been a widow for the past 20 years.
Like the rest of the women, she was sitting under the scorching sun, but happy because she was sure of going back home with either a bag of rice or cassava flakes commonly known as garri.
These women, numbering about 3,000, had come from different localities to Pyakassa, a rural community in the Federal Capital Territory. They defied all odds, including the fear of contracting the dreaded coronavirus, to assemble at the Mountain Top Prayer Ground with the hope of going back home with either foodstuffs, cash or both. The gathering was at the instance of the Rock of Ages Empowerment Foundation (RAEF)and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) both of whom had joined hands to lend some succour to these widows.
The widows, drawn from the six area councils of the Federal Capital Territory(FCT) were taken through an enlightenment session on COVID-19 preventive and control measures, and given some palliatives, including foodstuffs.
For many women, widowhood comes unexpectedly and puts them in a new but very difficult phase of their lives. In an emotion laden voice, Josephine narrated how she and her children were chased out of her matrimonial home when her husband died. According to her, the family of her deceased husband took possession of all the properties acquired while her husband was alive.
The youngest of her children was four months old at that time.
Life hit her a second blow when the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) demolished her two roadside restaurants located at Nyanya and Area 1, Garki.
“We have been suffering, since after both demolitions. I couldn’t continue with the business. So, I decided to do a catering job but by the time I hire cooking utensils, plates and staff, I go home with peanuts.
“My in-laws do not care. Who are you to request for school fees or any other form of assistance no matter how little?”
Joy Osakwe’s experience as a widow in the past 14 years is not better off. She’s a petty trader living in a one-room apartment in Mpape with her four daughters. Joy said, providing food and sponsoring their education has been very difficult.
“After my husband left us, his people turned their back on us. Even when the children are sick, they don’t care, not even a call to find out how they are surviving. My children were forced to drop out of school for few terms before help came.”
Anara Atierom lamented that after her husband’s demise three years ago, his family, close friends and associates whose lives he had impacted immensely on before he passed on, never kept to series of promises to ensure the eight children he left behind, went to school.
“When I call, they will tell me they have not forgotten their promise. Yet, we struggle to eat after all the help my husband rendered to them while he was alive. It has been from one issue to the other without support,” she said.
Available statistics showed that there are about 258 million widows globally. Out of this lot, about 3.5 million of them live in Nigeria, according to a survey conducted in 2015.
Five years after the last survey, the population of widows in Nigeria must have grown higher due to the issues of insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, road traffic accidents, communal clashes, crime and poor health delivery system.
Most of these women face pathetic situations, including gross poverty, neglect from family and friends, diverse forms of injustice and harmful traditional practices of taking over their husband’s properties, victimisation, discrimination and abuse.
Except for a few who have sustainable means of livelihood or whose children are already grown up and settled, many widows in Nigeria are burdened with the responsibilities of catering for their families single handedly.
Some go as far as borrowing or engaging in strenuous activities just to put food on the table. By implication, there are higher tendencies of widows who suffer psychological torture, depression or preventable health conditions triggered by the myriad of issues they are confronted with.
This is not unconnected with the poor educational background or lack of quality entrepreneurial skills, which would have probably exposed these group of special women to opportunities to better fend for their families.
For example, Gloria, who lost her husband in January this year, has been lamenting the attitude of her in-laws in the last six months. Barely 30 years of age and a mother of three, she already feels hopeless, confused and depressed. Although, she is a seamstress and plies her trade in her one room apartment, she lacks the needed sewing gadgets and finances that could make her business thrive.
Generally, widows with no sustainable source of income, depend largely on the little monetary donations, scholarship schemes, empowerment programmes, foodstuff and clothing interventions that come from concerned individuals and religious bodies.
The gathering of the widows was at the instance of the Rock of Ages Empowerment Foundation(RAEF), a nongovernmental organisation with a mandate to restore hope to widows and orphans in the country.
Since the event coincided with the period of the global pandemic, RAEF decided to collaborate with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to ensure that the programme was organised in compliance with the protocols of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and beneficiaries were equally sensitized on the global coronavirus pandemic. They were cautioned to be very careful not to contract the virus.
Founder of RAEF, Evangelist Ignatius Newman, disclosed that the organ
isation explores the annual International Widows Day celebrated every June 23, to empower and transform as many widows and orphans as possible.
Newman said that the organization, which started in Maiduguri, Borno State, has so far impacted on the lives of over 8,000 widows and orphans.
Since 2007, Newman said, the organisation had continued to bring succour to these less privileged families through scholarships, monthly medical checkup and treatment as well as financial support.
“I advocate always and all the time for the training of a girl child. If the girl child is trained in school to the level of having her first degree at least, she will be able to fend for herself.
“Education is the key because no matter how problematic things turn out in the event of losing a spouse, it will expose them to doing so many things to survive. The major problem of this issue is the training of the girl child. Most of the widows did not go through the formal education and because of that, they were left to survive on minimal or anything they could just lay their hands on,” he said.
Newman observed that widows and other vulnerable groups were usually left out of government’s policies and programmes, thereby leaving them at the mercy of those who oppress them, abuse their human rights. He harped on the need for government at all levels to establish laws and policies to protect widows and girls from barbaric cultures and all forms of abuse.
“Widows are going through a lot in the hands of relatives because government is yet to make favourable laws that will protect their interests. If the laws are in place, nobody will come and chase any widow out of the house or tell a widow to drink the water used to bath the husband’s corpse to prove her innocence of not being responsible for her husband’s death.
“My message to the government on the 2020 World Widows Day is that they should come up with laws to protect these women. If there is a law to protect them, they won’t be subjected through hardship after losing their husbands.”
He further admonished widows not to lose hope, saying, widowhood is not a curse, but a phase of life which many women go through one way or the other.
“Don’t see it as though something terrible has happened to you; don’t give up no matter what it is you’re going through. You are not alone. Keep pushing forward and you will come out if it with Joy,” he said.