Dehumanizing Practices to Widows in Nigeria

Keywords: Widowhood practices, rituals, widows, Umuada, Ijadeopo, mourning, Takaba, Nigeria.


Dehumanizing Practices to Widows in Nigeria. How are widows treated in Nigeria? Why are widowhood rites performed? What influences the practice?

In Nigeria, women are regarded as appendages to their husbands. For this reason they face a lot of inhuman traditional practices that are harmful to their health.

Widowhood is a dishonourable situation which happens to women after the death of their husbands.  And widowhood practices are the rituals that the woman has to undergo immediately after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, in Africa and especially in Nigeria, these rituals are dehumanizing and obnoxious.

When the man dies, his wife is usually the prime suspect to his death. Thus she must undergo these rituals to prove her innocence.

But when the woman dies, her husband is given all the comfort that he needs to withstand the loss. He has free access to go wherever he wants. Even if he is confined to the house, he has free access to move about within the house. And part of the funeral processes are funded by his inlaws.

In Nigeria, despite modernization, the widowhood practices have continued to be practiced openly. But for the working woman, some parts of the rituals have been modified. And no ethnic group or tribe is left behind in these dehumanizing practices to widows in Nigeria.

How are widows treated in Nigeria?      

 Widowhood practices in Igbo land:         

Below are some of the dehumanizing practices meted out to widows in Nigeria.

Isolation and interrogation –

The widow is usually isolated from other people by keeping her alone in a room for 28 days. And within this period, she is seriously interrogated and must swear of her innocence concerning the husband’s death.

To ensure that she speaks the truth on her involvement in his death, she must drink corpse water. The water that she must drink is the water used to wash the copse of her husband. She can also be forced to cross over the corpse of her husband three times.

It is the people’s belief that when a man dies before his wife, the wife killed him.

This is because they belief was that every married woman wants her husband dead. It is to make it possible for her to take her husband’s wealth to her own people, i.e. her parents. Also she could have killed her husband out of jealousy of his love for the other wives he married.

And if she refuses any of these actions, she is termed to be guilty of the death of her husband. If she dies within the mourning period after these actions, she is also termed to be guilty of his death.

Excommunication –

Apart from being isolated in a room, she is also excommunicated from others. So she cannot communicate with other people as she used to before the death of her husband.

She is also forbidden to touch herself within the isolation period. To touch herself, she must make use of a broom stick or a knife which she holds at all times.

The widow is forbidden to cook or make use of the same eating utensils with other members of the family. All her food must be cooked by another widow and must be eaten with broken and worn out utensils.

No comfort allowed –

During the 28 days, she must sit on the floor and sleep on a mat or the bare floor. For some, she must sleep beside her husband’s corpse.  And every morning she must cry calling her husband’s name as she does so. This is a form o programmed crying.

Bathing is forbidden and even hand washing before eating is also forbidden. But after the seclusion period, she is accompanied to the river naked in the middle of the night to bathe.

Her hair must also be shaved using pieces of broken bottles or razorblade. This is done to ensure that her scalp is bruised. And throughout the mourning period which could last 6 months to a year, she must wear black cloths. But in some parts they make use of white clothes.

Purification process –

In certain parts of Igbo land, the widow must have sexual intercourse with the high priest of the land. This is done to separate her from the spirit of her dead husband. But some other parts of Igbo land make use of herbal bathing as a form of purification.

On the issue of properties –

The widow is seriously interrogated and made to swear and oat concerning her late husband’s properties and his financial standing. And she must relinquish all his properties and financial holdings to her inlaws.

Disownment –

If the woman gave birth to one girl, the child is taken away from her and she is sent back to her parents. And if she did not give birth to any child or did not have a son, she is also sent back to her parents.

Financial taxation –

Most of the events before the burial and during the burial are financed by the widow.   She finances the feeding of the Umuadas during the wake keeping. The Umuadas are the first daughters of members of the kindred that are married out of the kindred. They are very powerful forces of women that influence many decisions in their place of birth.

So during the night vigil for the diseased man, the Umuadas will spend the night in the diseased house. And during the period they spend there, it is the responsibility of the widow to provide exactly whatever these women request for. She must provide for what they will eat, their toiletries, etc. during their entire stay. These women will request for expensive things such as life goat, palm wine, etc. They claim that it is for purification process. 

The widow also finances majority part of the burial expenses. This is usually part of the reason the inlaws insist on taking away the diseased properties and money.

Widowhood practices in other parts of Nigeria:

In the Yoruba land –

The widow starts suffering as soon as the death of her husband is announced. The inlaws will immediately demand for the diseased properties, bank accounts, etc.

She is tortured, dehumanized and made to feel guilty over the loss of her husband. She is also secluded so that she does not infect others with her widowhood.

Just like the Igbo widow, she is subjected to eating with broken pots and plates. And on the 7th day, her hair is shaved to severe the bond between her and the diseased husband.

She is also forced to cry profusely, like her Igbo counterpart. And if she refused to partake in these, she is regarded as a mentally ill woman. She is thus to forfeit the rights to any benefit.

The mourning period lasts for 3 – 4 months, after which she is given a ritual bath at night. She is then allowed to change her clothes and she is lead to the market.

After all these, she will hold a very big party which is called Ijadeopo. This is to be her outing ceremony. This ceremony is financially tasking.

The diseased properties are shared among his children. And if the family is polygamous, the properties go to the wives.

Widowhood practices in Delta state –

The widow is usually confined for an initial 7 days. After which an additional 30 days is added. This confinement takes place in a small hut. The isolation is to restrict her movement and association with other people.

In Plateau State –

The diseased is buried within one week of his death. Then the woman observes the Takaba. This is a 4 month and ten days of mourning and seclusion. She talks to no one and made to sit in one place, wearing sack cloth with a grass fond circling her head.

Within the days of seclusion, her inlaws will decide who will marry her. That is because she must be remarried to her inlaw.

Why are widowhood rites performed?

The aim of the entire widowhood rites and rituals, is to cutoff the relationship between the dead and the living. But unfortunately this brings about dehumanizing practices to widows in Nigeria. This is a case of good intension, but wrong methods.

The issue on seclusion:

Secluding the widow is carried out with the belief that the seclusion will prevent her from encountering her dead husband. It is believed that the spirit of the dead husband is still lurking around the widow.

Shaving of hair:

This is done with the belief that without the hair, the widow is unattractive and not complete as a woman.  Thus she will repel the spirit of her husband. It is also seen as a sign of respect for the dead.

The mourning clothes:

This is also another means to ensure that the spirit of her husband does not get attracted to her. It is also a sign to let other people know that her husband is dead.

Sleeping on the bare floor:

Making the widow sit or sleep on the bare floor or mat is to done to destroy her dignity. It is done to let her know that her position and entitlement in the family is lost. This also signifies grief.

Denial to bathing:

This is done The with the belief that it signifies the widow’s love for her dead husband.

Drinking corpse water:

The woman must drink this to prove that she is not the one who killed her husband.   

Reasons for the knife and broom:

These objects are not only used by the widow to touch herself they are also used as protective instruments. It is believed that they protect her from being attacked by the spirit of her dead husband. And the people believed that even though that the husband is dead, he will still want sex with his widow.

Broken utensils:

The cooking and eating with broken utensils is done to ensure that the husband’s spirit does not eat with her.

The programmed crying:

This is to prove her love for him.

Purification process:

The widow having sex with another man, is assumed to let the spirit of the dead husband rest in peace. This is because there is the belief that the dead still recognizes the widow as his wife. And if the purification is not done, it could affect her relationship with another man in future.

What influenced this widowhood practices?   

As the individual rituals had aims, there are actually root causes to the entire widowhood practices.

Poverty and hunger:

The poor relatives of the diseased saw the death of their son as a means to get enriched. The money taken from the widow is used for expensive burial ceremony, to lavish on food and drinks.

The issue of male dominance:

In Nigeria, the male gender is associated with being superior, while the female gender is regarded as inferior.


Educating the female gender was seen culturally as being a waste of time because she will be married off. So education were only meant for the male gender.

This illiteracy made it possible for the females to be abused in all forms.

Poor economic status of women:

Culturally, women were not allowed to own land or have access to their husband’s wealth. And also the prolonged mourning period deprived her access to work and earn income. So she cannot pay for her children’s upkeep and education.

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