Being a Widow



Mrs. Tonia Ekarika, 38 and mother of two is a widow. She was married to Ekeng, a Cross River indigene and they lived happily in Calabar, the state capital until her husband died five years ago.

From the time she married her husband and till his demise five years ago, Tonia remained a full time, dedicated and loving housewife. She lost her husband through a protracted illness. The man was so bedridden to the extent that all their financial resources were exhausted. It took the intervention of friends and the sister-in-law to pay the hospital and burial bills when the husband finally gave up the ghost. And this was the beginning of Tonia’s travails.

Immediately after the burial, the sister-in-law who actually paid most of the hospital and burial bills told the brother’s widow that she had to vacate the brother’s only property, where the couple lived before death came calling. Her reason was that in as much as she paid the bills, she needs to take over the late brother’s property. Tonia, who is from Delta State thought it was a huge joke, and before she could know what was happening to her; hoodlums arranged by her sister in-law threw her and two children out of their home into the cold street of Calabar.

She packed her personal belongings and that of the children and headed back home to Delta State. It was while watching a television programme one Sunday evening that she saw the intervention and empowerment the wife of the Governor of Cross River State, Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke was giving to women in her position that she got the phone number of Mrs. Imoke. In a text message, she narrated to Mrs. Imoke what she had gone through since the demise of her husband. Touched by her situation, Mrs. Imoke referred Tonia’s case to the Federation of International Women Lawyers (FIDA), which is presently making progress in getting justice for the widow.

Mrs. Ekenma Onuoha’s tale of woes is similar to that of Tonia’s. She is from Ohafia, same local government, Abia State with her late husband, Mr. Ikpo Onuoha. Her industrious husband suddenly fell ill and was rushed to various hospitals to save his life. He finally died a month later. Burial rites done, Ekenma began to piece together the pieces of her life in other to move on in life.

Suddenly, things began to change. One evening, her brother in-law ‘Oko’ walked into her home to tell her that he wants to take over their five-room house. “I told him, well if he needs a room, he’s at liberty to take the outer room as she has no need for it temporarily as her three children are still young.” But the man insisted that he is not only taking over the house, but also the woman and the children are his property. “The point is that I’m not attracted to this man, and for me, it’s so absurd and bizarre. This is the problem I have been going through, to the extent that I have been accused of killing my husband. But God has been my strength,” she told THISDAY at the widowhood summit in Uyo, Akwa Ibom last week.

There are many sad stories about the lives of widows across the country, some pathetic and mind-boggling. It was as a result of strengthening and empowering these widows that the wives of the governors of southsouth and southeast convoked a first ever summit on widows in the country with the theme: “Louder Please: A Call For Increased Advocacy And Intervention On Widows’ Right In Nigeria.”

Mrs. Obioma Liyel Imoke, wife of the governor of Cross River State, convener and initiator of the summit told THISDAY in Uyo that after establishing a project, giving life options to widows (GLOW) in Calabar last year in order to put an end to the sufferings of widows, especially the vulnerable ones by providing them platform to confront all discomforts such as poverty, discrimination, stigmatisation and vulnerability to diseases and self esteem, sold the idea to fellow wives of governors in southsouth and southeast and was wholeheartedly accepted.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the Banquet Hall at the bowel of the Akwa Ibom State Government House was filled to capacity by widows from the southsouth and southeast states as well as stakeholders and non-governmental organisations. According to Mrs. Imoke, “a few weeks ago, June 23 precisely, the world attention was drawn to the plight of widows globally as the international Widows Day was marked.

“The United Nations set this day aside to draw global attention to the plight and circumstances of widows all over the world. This is in realisation of the grim fact that widows, by circumstances of their loss of their husbands, are, more often than not, victims of all manner of injustices and indignities. The UN, in 2010, therefore ratified June 23 of every year as the International Widows Day,” she explained. She said that many nations have gone ahead to domesticate the convention setting the this day aside to pay attention to widows and expressed happiness that Nigeria has this year adopted and domesticated this date. She singled out the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajia Zainab Maina for this success. “For this reason, wives of the governors of the southsouth and southeast of the country have decided to join the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan and the Minister to accentuate the efforts being made and join them to find lasting solutions to the challenges that these specific sect of womenfolk face,” Mrs. Imoke said.

She said though the different wives of the governors have different interventions on widows all geared towards finding lasting solutions to the challenges that these vulnerable women face, that “it is imperative that we all make a commitment towards taking an action that will advance the cause of the widows. This section of the society needs our individual and collective action towards increasing economic opportunities for them and strengthening livelihoods through vocational skills acquisition, microenterprise development and access to microfinance. Very crucial and top of our list is protecting their rights of inheritance after the demise of their husbands.”

While calling on the traditional rulers who are the custodians of culture to review all traditional practices that subject widows to indignities, Mrs. Imoke implored leaders at the federal, state and local government levels to see to the need to take practical steps towards ameliorating the deplorable plight of widows. “One key action is to improve the policy and socio-cultural environment that will enable widows to realise their full potentials. This will go a long way in redressing the injustices widows suffer on account of loosing their husbands, which to all intents and purposes not their own doing in any way.”

Mrs. Imoke went ahead to list the indignities widows go through to include confinement, defacement, disinheritance, extended mourning period, ritual cleansing, dethronement and ostracism. “Everyone has a role to play. Each and everyone understand that the power to make a difference lies in our hands. Statistics show that we will know, be related to or be a widow ourselves at one time or the other. Women need to join hands to insist on their rights. Unfortunately many of these practices, from investigations, are perpetrated by women on women and this should stop,” she told THISDAY.

In an earlier interview with THISDAY, Senator Helen Esuene, a widow and chairman, Senate Committee in Women Affairs and Youth Development said a case study on widowhood in countries like India, Nigeria, Mali and countries in Latin America reveal that as many as 33.3 per cent of women, especially within the age bracket of 15 to 59 years are widows. She said that this is likely because men marry most women that are younger than them.

In a very emotional voice, Mrs. Esuene said widowhood in itself is a traumatic experience in the best situations. She said the fact that Nigerians are still grappling with the shackles of culture and tradition, which subtly and overtly impose a second class status on women makes the experience often times harrowing as cultural and traditional practices constitute more than 70 per cent of the problems of widows.

“The systematic denial of housing and property inheritance rights lies at the heart of a widow’s economic marginalisation for by losing house and farmland, she loses the primary means of feeding herself and her children. In the northern part of the country, however, the Muslim religion has a well articulated sharing formula for the family members on the death of the husband and this has to a large extent is acceptable to the parties concerned,” she explained.

Quoting a 2004 study from an Enugu-based human rights organisation that showed that out of 340 widows interviewed, 87 per cent had their farmlands taken away from them, 26 per cent of them had the farmlands taken away from them by their deceased husband’s brother. In the same study 87 per cent of the widows were driven out of their matrimonial homes, while 10 per cent of them were subjected to dispossession by their brother-in-laws.

“With this scenario, it is therefore pertinent and commendable that the governors’ wives in the two zones that suffer most, have taken upon themselves to call this summit for what I believe have been a heart-to-heart discussion on some widowhood practices. I commend these women for their current efforts to alleviate the sufferings of widows in their various domains, which have included the provision of shelter and economic empowerment amongst others,” she emphasised.

In a statement marking the International Widows’ Day last year, the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon noted that globally about 115 million widows live in abject poverty and about 81 million suffer one form of physical abuse such as social stigimitisation, rape, sexual abuse, destitution, prostitution and ostracism amongst others.

“It is only fair that whatever a couple has endeavoured to achieve are available for their children in the event of their demise. I therefore urge and appeal to our paramount rulers, clan heads, village and family heads to rise up to the occasion and put an end to the obnoxious practices surrounding widowhood that offers no value to the society in this 21st century,” Senator Esuene charged. Hajia Zainab Maina, the minister of women affairs and youth development, regretted that the population of widows is steadily increasing in Nigeria; and they are adults, mothers, sisters and friends as well as the integral part of the society, yet little is know about them and the challenges they go through. “They are seldom captured in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, often neglected by the law and development strategies making their situation invisible. “These women have had to cater for themselves and their families alone sometimes without the appropriate knowledge and skills needed to take over the role that fate had bestowed on them and also along the trauma of losing a loved one. The situation has been aggravated by the recent spate of terror attacks, inter-tribal crisis and natural disasters in various parts of the country.

“Evidently, the traditional structure, patriarchy and the economic climate are problems confronting widows. Many of them rely on the work of their hands; they lack access to their deceased spouses’ land and properties. Furthermore, the complex interaction of the legal structure in the country, which simultaneously functions alongside with cultural traditions, gender and religion, have an adverse effect on the status of widows in Nigeria,” the Minister said.

For her, the improvement of the situation of Nigerian widows would largely depend on how Nigerians respond to their plights. “I wish to call on all Nigerians individually and collectively to think of what they can do to bring about improvements in the lives of widows and their families,” she said.

Death is the ultimate end. She therefore said that it is “very important that couples freely discuss life after their demise. There is need for consistent advocacy. The judiciary should a second look on how to quickly discharge cases of inheritance as it affects widows. The traditional institutions including those of women must come together and purge the society of these practices, which are enemies of social growth and peaceful coexistence. These positions, some of the participants at the summit agreed.

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