Harmful Effects of Widowhood Practices – Nigeria

Keywords: Widowhood practices, rites, rituals, widows, Umunna, Umuada, resilience, mental health, Nigerian constitution, Will, Nigeria.


Harmful Effects of Widowhood Practices – Nigeria. Do Nigerian women accept these widowhood rites or practices? What are the challenges from these widowhood practices? Are there widows who have resilience? The Nigerian Law on widowhood. How can these widowhood practices be overcome?

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.

These rituals are barbaric, ancient and violate the right a human being. And in Nigeria, these widows face deep rooted agony, pain and seclusion during the ritual processes. But unfortunately they must undergo the processes as culture stipulates.

The harmful effects of widowhood practices in Nigeria leave majority of these women to suffer long term. And these challenges include physical, psychological, social and economical aspects, while some may die from it. For those who do come out of it unharmed have resilience.

Do Nigerian women accept these widowhood rites or practices?

These widowhood rites are forced on these women from the time of onset till the present day. And those who enforce these barbaric and obnoxious rites are the Umunna and the Umuada. These are formidable forces in Igbo land.

The Ummunna is a very strong, power yielding administrative set up in Igbo land. These men are members of the extended family and members of the kindred. They make the laws, enforce it and make punishments to offenders. So they are involved in disputes, marriages, funeral rites, etc.

The Umuada are made up of daughters who are from the kindred, but are married out. These are the indigenous women with great administrative powers and they are feared by both men and women. They function to settle disputes among women and form a bridge between the women folks and the men. And they ensure that the traditions of the land are kept and valued, no matter how archaic in modern times.  

Voice of some widows in the southeastern Nigeria:

In one research, it documented that 69% of widows confirmed they were forced to swear. This was in order to prove their innocence in the death of their husbands.  And many confirmed that were forced to drink the water used to wash their husband’s corpse. 

Another 64% confirmed that they were locked up in the same room with the corpse of their husbands. And 68% mentioned that they were forced to cry occasionally during the mourning period.

Then 77% of widows interviewed said they were forced to shave their hair. These are hairs on the head and pubic areas.

Sixty nine percent of widows interviewed said that they were starved of good food during the entire period. And they were forced to make use of broken plates to eat without washing their hands.

Also, 73% said that they were restricted from to certain places during the mourning period.

About 65% were forced to vacate their matrimonial homes by their inlaws. And up to 31% said that they were forced to marry their husband’s relations. But for those who did not marry their inlaws, 65% of them were sexually abused by these inlaws.

Voices of some widows in the southwestern Nigeria:

In other documented papers, the widows interviewed said that they would have preferred hearing encouraging words from their inlaws. They said that they would have preferred comforting words to accusations and pain.

They longed that their inlaws empathize and pray with them rather than eject them from their homes.

These women attested to the fact that widowhood practices were unfair to them. And they wondered why these were only meant for widows and not widowers.

The women confirmed that these practices were superstitious and oppressive to widows. And some women called it bullying.

What are the challenges from these widowhood practices?

The harmful effects of widowhood practices in Nigeria inflict both physical and psychological pain on widows who are already traumatized. And below are some of the challenges these women face.

Mental health conditions:

It is important to know that women are more likely to suffer from common mental health conditions than men.

The common mental health conditions these widows are likely to suffer from are depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. Others include post traumatic stress disorders, sleep problems, schizophrenia, somatization, anger and loss of self esteem.

It is known that the death of their husband naturally put these women into normal grief. But these extra tortures may push them into pathological grief and possible suicide.

Most women interviewed in one research paper believe that the practice of these rites reduced their dignity.

Social and economic issues:

The widow in Nigeria runs the risk of being impoverished and having her children taken from her. And her children are forced to drop out of school and forced into child labour, prostitution, early marriage, hawking, etc.

These are made possible because her late husband’s properties are taken from her. And she is deprived from work during the ritual processes. 

The widow can also suffer stigmatization, deprivation and loneliness. And some will go into prostitution and begging in order to survive.

One research study in southwestern Nigeria, documented that 69% of the widows interviewed were forced into financial hardship. Forty one percent of the widows interviewed felt lonely and developed depression. And 17% of these widows were deprived of their houses. 

Physical complications:

The widow also runs the risk of having physical illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes and sexually transmitted infections. Also infections and death can arise from drinking corpse water.

A woman from Imo state lamented that a lot of widows have died shortly after the death of their husbands. This is due to the inhuman treatments the received after the death of their husbands, according to one research paper. 

Are there widows who have resilience?

It is important to know that not every widow subjected to these obnoxious practices is negatively affected. There are some women who have resilience. Resilience is the ability to cope despite adverse conditions.

Some widows who go through these painful rites emerge strong and are able to rebuild their lives.

One of the factors that help to bring about resilience is having a stable mental health prior to the rites. A background of poor mental health will definitely predispose to a worsening of mental health with the rites. 

 Religion and faith is another factor. Many of these widows testify that their belief in God was the primary support they had. This spiritual resource helped them cope during the period. And the social support they received in many ways from the church members helped them to pass through unharmed.

So these widows joined their church choirs, joined prayers groups and other church activities. They got involved in reading the scriptures and praying more often.

The widows who are educated and had gainful employment, suffered less of these rites. They were respected by the village women and did not have to spend so many days in the village.  So being hard working and having a source of livelihood is a good asset for coping.

The Nigerian Law on widowhood.

The harmful effects of widowhood practices in Nigeria have caught the attention of law makers. In Nigeria, there are many laws that are there to protect the widow, implementation maybe the issue. Unfortunately, many widows may find it difficult reporting their inlaws and taking them to court. Also there is the issue of financial implications of going to court, especially for a widow who is already impoverished.  

Federal laws:

The Nigerian law makes the provision for equal rights, obligations and opportunities to all Nigerian citizens. This is contained in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, chapter 4.

Also contained in the law is the Widows’ Rights. It states here that the widow should not be subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatments. And states that the widow has the right to remarry or make choices as well as the right to inheritance.  

There is also in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 2011 as amended, section 34 (1). It is stated here that every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person…. And no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

In 2022, a member of the House of Representatives enacted a bill prohibiting all forms of degrading widowhood practices.  The bill is to also provide remedies for victims and penalties for offenders. This was reported by Premium Times on 17th February 2022.

State laws:

In Enugu state, it is unlawful to compel a widow to drink corpse water. It is also unlawful to shave the hair on the head or any part of the body. Sleeping with the husband’s corpse is unlawful, as well as not being allowed to receive condolence visits. All these and all the other obnoxious treatment of the widows in the name of widowhood rituals have been outlawed.

Also in 2004, the Cross River State House of Assembly enacted a law against domestic violence and the maltreatment of widows via the rituals. Any contravening of these laws attracts a fine of twenty thousand Naira and 3 years imprisonment. 

Overcoming widowhood practices.                                                    

Research has proved beyond doubt that these widowhood practices are detrimental to the widows in all ramifications. Thus, there is need to modify some of these rituals and eradicate others. And to do these, there is need to involve some stakeholders.

The stakeholders:

These stakeholders include the Umunna, the Umuada, the traditional rulers, women in politics and Female lawyers. There is need for the Christian churches; the Muslims, etc. also wade into the matter. Other stakeholders are the NGOs, the media women, the women in police, etc.

Traditional stakeholder –

There is need for many aspects of these practices to be scrapped and this requires the traditional rulers. Since many aspects of these practices have been outlawed in Nigeria, the traditional rulers should ensure strict compliance. Other stakeholders like the Umunna, Umuada and the wives of the traditional rulers should also come into this aspect.

The professionals –

The professional stakeholders should ensure that illiteracy is eradicated among the female gender. When women get educated, they will be able to know when their fundamental human rights are being violated. And they can know the appropriate channels to follow to get redress.

The NGOs and other stakeholders can ensure that women also get economically empowered. This will go a long way in gaining respect for women and reduce the time spent performing these rite.

It is important that the victims speak out, because silence fuels violence. And this is where the female lawyers can help, by ensuring that those who speak out get justice. It is important that perpetrators are punished. These female lawyers can also make their services free for the widows who cannot afford the legal fees.

The different religious denominations should speak against such inhuman practices. They can also render different types of support to the victims of such practices.

The media women can play a very unique role. They can through their various media channels educate and enlighten women on their rights and means of ensuring justice.

The parents:

There is need for parents to ensure that families are stable. A stable family will ensure a stable mental health in the children. Parents should also make sure that the children are adequately trained and educated. The male child must be trained to see the female child as an equal and not an inferior gender.

Husbands should be encouraged to write their Wills. A Will is a legal document. It states the person’s wish on how his/her property is to be distributed after death.  This will go a long way to discourage the husband’s relatives from denying his nuclear family members their legitimate inheritance.

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