The Impact of Widowhood Rite: The Possible Way
In Nigeria, like any other African Country, traditional practices like the issue of widowhood is still consciously and unconsciously upheld by significant proportion of the population. Widowhood is a tragedy that befalls a married person as a result of the timely or untimely death of the spouse, either the husband or the wife, making the survival a widow or a widower. Widowhood practices are observed by almost all the ethnic groups in Nigeria, particularly among the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausas. The culture of widowhood has been in existence from time immemorial and transmitted from generation to generation.
The issue of widowhood, particularly in Nigeria, appears to have gender implication as there are certain cultural imbalances in the practices of widowhood by widows and widowers. Traditions are particularly hard on widows because widowhood involves varying degrees of physical hardship, deprivation, ritual contaminations, emotional instability, socio-economic and psychological trauma.
In Southwestern part of the country, the travail of a widow begins as soon as the death of her husband is announced. The in-laws immediately demand for the list of the man’s property and bank accounts, after which she is subjected to series of rites and ritual practices to mourn the death of her husband. A widow is made to feel miserable, wretched and guilty over her loss. She is seen and treated as ill-luck goat to be avoided so that she does not infect other women.
In some Yoruba communities, a widow is expected to eat from broken plates and cook with broken pots, and on the seventh day, her hair is shaved to sever the bond between her and the dead husband. She is also expected to keep vigils and appears very sorrowful by wailing and crying profusely. If she fails to mourn, it is believed that she may become mentally deranged or forfeit the right to any benefit. After this, she goes into mourning proper, which could be for a period of three or four months (120 days) during which she is to be of impeccable behavior so that her late husband’s spirit may gain quick entry into the community of his ancestral spirit. At the end of three or four months, a widow will perform the outing ceremony, which include being washed in the night after having the final wailing, making some rituals which are expected to finally put the spirit of the departed soul to final rest and performs the “outing” rites which involves changing of dresses and being led to the market. The outing rites also involve the widow going into an elaborate party which is referred to as “ijade-opo” to mark the outing. With this a widow will have to spend all she had left in shouldering the responsibilities of the ceremony. The widow then steps into the shoes of a provider, becoming the breadwinners of their family.
On the inheritance right, the deceased husband’s property is shared among his children. But if the family is a polygamous one, the property is shared among the number of wives he had. If on the other hand, the man left a will, his property will be shared in accordance with his will. A widow in Yoruba Land does not have rights to inherit the husband’s property, instead, considers women as part of the estate of their husband who is to be inherited by relatives of the husband. This brings in the issue of leverage in which a widow is handed over in marriage to her deceased younger brother, particularly if the widow is still young.
In Igbo culture of the South-Eastern part of Nigeria, violence perpetuated against widows from relatives and family members. There, widows are kept in dark rooms for days and are sometimes deprived of access
to food, they are forced to weep daily, sleeping on mats or old banana leaves, eating from broken pots, forced to drink the water used in bathing their husbands’ corpse, they are compelled to mourn the husband with black clothes and also expected to allow the (Umuada) married daughter of the community to shave the hair on their head and pubic with razor blades, to prove their innocence in relation to their husband’s death. Widows in this part of the country have to undergo certain traditional rites and practices which forms part of the deceased husband’s funeral ceremony in other to show respect to the dead husband.
In South-South Nigeria, particularly Delta State, after the initial seven days confinement, additional 30 days is made mandatory for widows in a tinning hut. This is done to ensure isolation, restriction of movement and association with people. Also, in the culture of Birom in Plateau State, when a husband dies, he is buried within one week, the widow observes the Takaba, a four-month, ten-day mourning period in seclusion talking to no one and sitting in a place. She wears a sack and has a grass frond round her head, the sack or simple tarred clothe forms all the dressing of the widow. She remains in the house mourning until the male members of the family take a decision as to who will remarry the widow.
On the contrary, widowers across Nigeria rarely go through these ordeals at the demise of their wives. From observations, they are not subjected to indignities when their wives die, they are not compelled to
mourn, nor subjected to any of the dehumanizing experiences which widows go through. During the mourning periods, widower sleeps where ever he wants, though may be confined to a particular place, but they are allowed free movement within the house, they are not restricted from visiting certain places.
A widower in every culture is also free to remarry as soon as possible unlike the widow.
These above facts reveal that widowhood practices are gender bias as widowers are not subjected to those dehumanizing and degrading rites which their female counterparts are made to go through in Africa.
Many people never ponder over what happens to a man who loses his wife to the cold and of death? Why is it that cruel practices are not meted on widow and nobody hears of anything like custom and tradition when a man loses his wife? Are all these still pointing to the world being that of men?
When a wife dies, society sympathizes with the widower. When a husband dies, the community starts questioning the circumstances surrounding the death of the man and examine invincible motives that his wife may have to kill him. Without any proof or trail, widows are accused of killing their husbands. It becomes mandatory to show public display of emotions so that people will see how distressed the widow is. Widows who do not cry (screaming and shouting) are considered heartless and unconventional. But it is forgotten that shock sometimes make people unable to cry and that the level, height and magnitude of the wailing do not ascertain innocence or magnitude of pain.
In certain parts of Nigeria, the maltreatment of widows is common so does other African countries in-laws and the community subject them to physical and emotional abuses such as being made to sit at the back of the door and on the floor, being confined from a month to one year, having their hair literally scrapped off with razor or broken bottles, not being allowed to observe personal hygiene; being made to routinely weep in public; being forced to drink the water used to bath their husbands’ corpse among other atrocities, then crowned by the loss of inheritance rights and eviction.
When a woman loses her husband, a civilized society should rally round to support her and her children, not the reverse. Causing her more pain than she is already going through at the death of the bread winner is just plain evil.
There are many reasons why widows go through this problem, but it is hardly ever for justice. Some families use it as a strategy to get back at the widow especially if they did not approve of the marriage and also if it is perceived that the woman was a hindrance to partaking in their brother’s wealth, they take away the property that the deceased left behind regardless if he had children or left a will. In other communities, it is just mandatory to go through the process because it is considered a thing of shame to lose your husband.
Widowhood in the traditional African context is a religion-cultural symbol that can have profound spiritual implications for the widowed. Other levels of reality that widowhood symbolizes include the awareness that African Society is oppressive, impoverishing and violent towards widows. As seen when relatives of the deceased husbands commit atrocities in the name of tradition against widows and the widow herself may encounter destructive emotional problems such as fear and anger coupled with health deterioration.
Most women lack the knowledge that it is their right to report such matters to the police, others lack the money to follow procedures, but most often they fear the consequences of trying to report this violation of their human rights because most times the police do send back cases like this to be handled by the family by describing it as a family matter or customary. What will be such a woman’s fate?
Facts have it that 115 million widows in the world live in poverty, suffer stigmatization and economic deprivation as a result of their husbands’ demise.
Communities generally, men and boys specifically must be assisted to recognise and understand the widows disadvantaged situation in order to be aided to take steps to help them overcome it. Through social widowhood education, men and women can be enabled collectively and individually to take full control over their lives and situations so as to overcome problems of irrational beliefs, superstition, ignorance, illiteracy and psychological suppression.
In order for widows in Africa to be integrated into the support systems of their communities, they need a friendly culture which specifies dignified ways in which the community expects them to behave and how they should be treated by their kin and those of their deceased husbands.
Culture, tradition and law have been identified as the bane of safe widowhood practices in Nigeria, which, if not adequately addressed, are capable of undermining the realisation of some goals in Nigeria.
Cultural and traditional practices constitute more than 70 per cent of the problems of widows in Nigeria. Even where marriages were contracted under the ordinance, cultural practices will be experienced especially where the widow is ignorant of her right or is financially incapacitated to fight the legal battle. Unfortunately, it is the conflict in the marriage law that is the root of the inheritance problem to widows.”
Factors Influencing Widowhood Practices
However, there are notable factors influencing the unhealthy widowhood practices in every part of the country. The notable factors include: illiteracy, poverty, Male-dominance influence, poor socio-economic status of women.
The Way Forward for Widows and the Generality of Women
On the way forward for widows and the generality of women, education, vocational skills acquisition and enlightening programmes have been seen in this study as antidotes to help widows resist those who may want to subject them to traumatizing widowhood rites. Education has been identified as a copping strategy for widows during the process of grief. Education depicts individual widow’s involvement in formal training for the purpose of acquiring basic knowledge, skills and expertise necessary for living a meaningful and impactful life. For widows to be free from all forms of abuses, Government, Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs) and religious body have some roles to play. They should invest more on the education of the girl-child. The government in particular re-affirms the girl-child is educated at an early stage of life so as to become empowered, enlightened and be able to fight for themselves, if eventually they found themselves in such state. Moreover, the illiterate communities should as a matter of fact be educated, particularly, on the way of handling the issue of widowhood.
In addition to these, widows need to be economically empowered for them to be free from inhuman rites and practices. This can be achieved through vocational skill acquisitions to expose them to all necessary economic opportunities as well as supportive services that can liberate them from unemployment, economic depression and poverty. Vocational skill is a highly useful system because its occupational content offers the trainees the opportunity to acquire skills, attitudes, interests, and the knowledge which they need to perform technologically and economically the job that is beneficial not only to them but to their society.
Among the implications of widowhood are the pathetic, degrading and dehumanizing rites that widows are subjected to. And for widows and women to be fully liberated, awareness programmes should be given to them to sensitize them to some facts, particularly on what widowhood entails. Therefore, it is a challenge to the society, i.e., the government, parents, women leaders, religious and opinion leader to sensitize widows and the generality of women about the negative impacts of widowhood.
No matter how fast technology is trying to cut off primitive practices in Nigeria, we have realized that the battle to win some barbaric customs may take a longer time than we anticipate.
Widowhood is one phase in the life of women that is painful and very emotional but when these ladies are subjected to dehumanizing treatments, it becomes an evil phase.
The rite of mourning the demise of a husband in Nigeria has for a very long time been taken to the extreme by the relatives of the dearly departed either because they have plans of punishing the grieving widow or for other reasons best known to themselves.
Confinement: During the period of mourning, the woman is restricted to her room. She is not allowed to cook or do any chores she would normally do.
Defacement: The belief of Nigerian cultures states that a woman’s hair should be shaved during the period of mourning.
Disinheritance: The woman is believed not to have any right to her husband’s properties at his passing. She may even get thrown out of the house by her in- laws.
Mourning period: Within this period, the woman is expected to cry at the top of her lungs so people will know she is in mourning. Some cultures even go as far as asking her to sleep in the same room with the corpse or drink the water used in bathing her husband. Lest she is accused of being the one who killed him.
Ritual cleansing: This happens particularly in the rural areas. The woman is taken to the stream to bath. Her clothes are burnt and she is made to walk naked home.
Dethronement: The woman is made to sit on the floor while mourning as a sign to show that her status has fallen.
Ostracism: They are shunned by polite society through no fault of their own.
Crawling Over Corpse: In the Eastern part of Nigeria, this is called ‘ige fe ukwu ozu’ where the victim is forced to crawl over her husband’s corpse for exoneration that she is didn’t kill the husband.
Maintenance allowance and residence: The husband is encouraged to make provision for his wife even at the time of his passing. This can be done through writing a will.
Ownership of properties: Widows now have the right to hold onto properties that are in their names at the time of their husbands passing.
Equitable share in inheritance of the property of her husband: Gone are those days when a widow cannot contest for an equal right in the inheritance of her husband’s property.
Elimination of prejudices and customary practices: Customary practices that have been used to bring shame, debasement and embarrassment to widows are being eliminated.