Friday, December 01, 2006

Women's Issue - Widowhood

A recent experience of a friend of my family started me thinking about the plight of widows. Onyeka Onwenu played the part of an igbo widow who had to shave her head and deal with a lot of inhuman treatment the moment her husband died. Nigerian movies constantly depict the cruelty facing widows. So i decided to do some more research about this. This post is quite long so i intend to make it a 2-3 part series. The family friend in question who i shall call Aunty J, is aware that i am doing this post so she is looking forward to reading it so please let your thoughts and comments be known. Aunty J has said many times over that if she had known, she would not have ignored financial security over love. Yes love is great but at the end of the day when her husband died, the love did not keep the inlaws away. So here goes:

"We are considered bad omens. We are excluded from all auspicious events."
(Lakshmi, India)

"I am accused of being a witch who killed her husband." (Terezinha, Mozambique)

"We are treated like animals just because we are widows." (Angela, Nigeria)

"I and my children were kicked out of the house and beaten by the brothers-in-law."
(Seodhi, Malawi)

"My husband died of AIDS and slept with many women; I am now dying, but his family blames me for his death." (Isabel, Kenya)

South Asia

India has the largest recorded number of widows in the world—33 million (10 per cent of the female population, compared to only 3 per cent of men), and the number is growing because of HIV/AIDS and civil conflicts. “Fifty-four per cent of women aged 60 and over are widows, as are 12 per cent of women aged 35-39. Remarriage is the exception rather than the rule; only about 10 per cent of widows marry again.” India is perhaps the only country where widowhood,
in addition to being a personal status, exists as a social institution.

Widows’ deprivation and stigmatization are exacerbated by ritual and religious symbolism. Indian society, like all patriarchal societies, confers social status on a woman through a man; hence, in the absence of a man, she herself becomes a nonentity and suffers a social death. Sati
(widow burning) is the ultimate manifestation of this belief. Widow remarriage may be forbidden in the higher castes, and remarriage, where permitted, may be restricted to a family
member. Further, a widow, upon remarriage, may be required to relinquish custody of her children as well as any property rights she may have. If she keeps her children with her,
she may fear they will be ill-treated in a second marriage. Indian widows are often regarded as “evil eyes”, the purveyors of ill fortune and unwanted burdens on poor families. Words in
the vernacular are crudely pejorative: “witch”, “dakan” and “whore” (similar verbal abuse is common in Bangladesh as well as in some countries in Africa).

Thousands of widows are disowned by their relatives and thrown out of their homes in the context of land and inheritance disputes. Their options, given a lack of education and training, are mostly limited to becoming exploited, unregulated, domestic labourers (often as house
slaves within the husband’s family) or turning to begging or prostitution.

The sexual and economic exploitation of widows, abandoned by their families to the temple sites has been sensationally documented in the media. Thousands of India’s widows live in abject poverty and degradation in these centres. Younger widows are forced into prostitution, and older ones are left to beg and chant for alms from pilgrims and tourists. Older
widows may have lived the greater part of their lives in these temples, having been brought there as child widows many years before. The ordeals of the temple widows and the occasional satire publicized in the international press. But the day-to-day suffering of Indian widows,
who are emotionally, physically and sexually abused by relatives, who or migrate to cities to live on the streets and beg, remains largely hidden.

Legislation criminalizing child marriage, sati and violence against women has not succeeded in
eliminating such traditions, which persist in villages of some Indian states. Lack of legal literacy, threats of violence and the insensitivity of the legal profession to women’s issues bar widows from seeking justice. As in other regions of the world, bitter disputes occur between widows
and brothers-in-law and sons and daughters-in-law over inheritance, residence and support, often resulting in physical and mental violence, including sexual abuse.

Restrictions on residence, dress, diet and social intercourse force a widow to a life in the shadows affecting both her physical and mental health. Cruel mourning rites may confine the widow within a designated residence for many months or years.
However, two factors distinguish India’s treatment of its widows from that of other developing countries. First, a number of states have set up widows’ pension schemes. Secondly, India is home to a vibrant and dedicated women’s movement, which is fighting intensely for the protection and empowerment of all women, and offers special programmes for widows.

In Bangladesh, the Muslim widow is, in theory, better off than the Indian Hindu widow. The Koran encourages remarriage and a widow cannot be disinherited. Under sharia, a woman
is entitled to one eighth of her husband’s estate, and half her male siblings’ share of the parent’s estate. In practice, however, many Bangladeshi widows, especially those who are illiterate and live in rural areas, are subject to oppressive patriarchal traditions.

Widows are the poorest and most vulnerable group since they are often deprived of their rightful inheritance. According to a recent report, many rural widows receive nothing from their in-laws and are often victims of violence, evicted from their homes and robbed of their household possessions. In return for shelter, many Bangladeshi widows are forced to work long hours as unpaid domestic servants in a relative’s house. Others may be brutally forced out into homelessness and thus are statistically uncounted.

Because arranged child marriages still occur in rural areas in Bangladesh, and age differences
between spouses can be great, child widowhood is not uncommon. Polygamy enables second wives to be brought into a marriage when the first is considered too old for sex or
childbearing. Daughters of poor widows represent an economic liability and are most likely to be given away in such arrangements. They commonly encounter problems with the new family and the adult sons. Before long, they may find themselves child widows in a hostile setting, encountering abuse or eviction. Illiterate, young and vulnerable, they may be passed on to a series of older, frail or disabled men, thus enduring serial widowhood.
Bangladesh, like Nepal, is allegedly a major centre for trafficking young girls to the brothels of India.

Widows’ daughters who are without male protectors and not enrolled in school are especially at risk to this trade. The numbers of young Bangladeshi girls disappearing in this way is purportedly reaching astronomical proportions. Poor, homeless Bangladeshi widows
make up a sizeable percentage of women marketed as domestic servants, forced to leave their children behind in the hope that the meagre income which they send home will
be used to feed, clothe and educate them.

In Pakistan, destitute widows are reported to be supported by a small pension or zakat. But, as in India, the allocation system is often corrupt, and the most needy widows are frequently neglected. Furthermore, the Honour Codes oppress all women, with a blanket of silence hiding
the cruelty; and sometimes imprisonment, or even death, is inflicted on young widows who are
suspected of bringing dishonour to the family.

In Sri Lanka, war widows from both sides of the conflict experience poverty and marginalization. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 widows live in
Kabul, most of whom lost their husbands in the war that killed an estimated 50,000 civilians. Under the Taliban, widows were doubly victimized. Denied paid employment, these widows further lost access to international food aid, since it was decreed by the Taliban
that such aid had to be collected by a male relative, which these widows do not have. The Taliban ban on women working outside the home has drastically increased the numbers
of widows and children begging in the streets. Widowed mothers’ children suffer malnutrition, ill health and depression, which in many cases leads to suicide.


LondonBuki said...


This is an eye opener...

Looking forward to reading the rest of this.

Biodun said...

Wow, this is so sad.

I knew it happened in Nigeria but no as bad in other parts of the world.

zaiprincesa said...

its really really see how backward the world is, even in this modern day. Why would you blame a woman for her own tragedy? So sad......

Nomad said...

My mum is a widow and I have first hand experience of how people (in-laws) change when their 'brother' is no more. My mum to her credit married my father at a very young age and went to secondary school after she had five of us. Today she's has a master's degree and is considering a doctorate. As a little girl, I couldnt understand her obsession with education but she must have had tremendous foresight because that was the key that kept her independent and able to put us through school after the terrible blow life dealt us.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you for spot-lighting this issue. In fact, my mother who is a widow is currently compiling a book to help widows inspired by the recent traumatic events we experienced following my father's death two years ago.

We are Nigerians that have lived abroad for donkey years and my parents and all siblings are college-educated and professionals. My father had some investments in Nigeria and about two years ago passed away of cancer. You would think that we would have the sympathy of my father's family after my father finally went home to rest following this horrific illness - anyone who has ever cared for a person with a terminal illness will understand what i'm saying (My father was given a few weeks to live but lived many months after that). My siblings and I were located in three states (in the US) and two countries and the majority of the burden for taking care of my father rested on my mother's shoulders. Never once did she complain, she took it stoically.
Fast forward to the period preceding my father's death. Per my father's request to be buried in Nigeria, we all go home for the funeral and we hear accusations from my father's family that my mother KILLED my father because she wanted to inherit his money!!! All this despite the fact that my mother has a master's degree was educated in the U.K and the U.S and has her own means!!!

My mother came out of the experience feeling a deep and urgent need to form a support network for widows which she is currently working on. She will be very excited to read this post!

azuka said...

It's so pathetic.

In my family, my grandfather had two wives and there was a lot of sibling rivalry between both sets of children. My Dad is the only son on his mother's side and he's the most well-to-do so he's the only one the women on the other side consider to be their brother -- hypocrites!

Two years ago my uncle on the the other side died and his sisters descended on his property, stripping his poor wife bare.

One of my aunts seized the money sprayed on the children at the burial and took away a lot of rice and meat provided for the attendees so some people had no food.

In the end, she refused to sponsor them through school and my Dad, incensed at the insensitivity, took on the burden himself.

Till today, the family still doesn't like the fact that my Dad's sponsoring the children and sending money for the upkeep of his elder brother's wife. They feel he ought to send the money to them and that the children are 'depriving' them of enjoying my father's money.

That's family for you.

Noni Moss said...

WOW - did you write that yourself? It is fantastically well written. You should send it to a paper!

The plight of widows in Nigeria in particular is horrific and it is terrible to see how the husband's family are blinded by greed and just turn against his family. It is so disgusting the lengths they would go to, to seize his property. It is interesting though to realise that this is an issue in other countries as well.

I remember a story of a boy i went to school with. His parents were reasonably well off. He stopped coming to school one day and no one saw him for a while. I didnt know him that well so i assumed he must have changed schools or something. A couple of years later, someone said they saw him begging under a bridge. His father had died and the inlaws had come and driven his mother (housewife) and the kids out. His mother had gone mad and he had to beg on the streets to support them.I just dont understand how theypeople can do that to the children - they are his flesh and blood for goodness sake.

I always advise my friends not to get married in Nigeria, mainly because they have no rights to alimony or anything under NIgerian Law, should they get divorced. i dont really know what the law is on divorce but I'm guessing it cant be that good with the number of stories we hear about the plight of widows. Basically a woman has no rights in Nigeria unless she comes from a well to do family herself or has people to protect her from the in-laws. If they get married abroad, and the guy has holdings over there then they can at least claim that, or if the guy has holdings in Nigeria, he should transfer them to his wife's name so she is protected.

(apologies for writing soo much - i got carried away)

Anonymous said...

i am the same anonymous that wrote previously. I think the real issue here is not legality but the psychological and emotional toll suffered by the widows after their spouse's death. In our situation, my dad had legally transferred all of his assets to my mother (you see, I'm a U.S. licensed attorney and since we knew my dad's illness was terminal, we had to make end of life plans for his estate).

Still, we heard rumors from some of my dad's family members that my mother either induced my father to "change" his will when he was weakened (cos surely he must have worked on this earth to ensure their inheritance) or she killed him and "seized" all the assets before they (the family) knew what was happening!!!

These are the same folks that didn't once call to offer support when my father was undergoing gruelling chemo....

I will stop writing now, as you can tell, this is still a sensitive issue for me......:)

Soul said...

I knew I would hate reading this and I did.

When my grandfather died, my mother (his youngest daughter) refused to get into all the hoopla.
My maternal family is steeped in tradition (if you know what I mean) My mother said they should keep everything just give her, her land. they cheated her on the land.. Her own sister kept chopping bits off it, it was almost a free for all.
Fortunately, many of the children of the other wives (apparently my maternal grnadfather had about 17 wives) had a soft spot for my mother as the last child and for the fact that she was hard working, so they all got together and said okay ..
'you take this little piece and go' we'll sort out the rest.

My mother wrangled a bit more land out of them and then immediately rushed off to get the paper work done.
They rest of them are still fighting, there has been allegations of al this stuff being used against each other and all that mess... my mother thankfully stayed the heck away from it.

My mother always said... I don't care who it is with, get it in writing, get it on paper. your siblings will become vicious when it comes to fighting for stuff they didn't work for anyway...

Me I'm like my mother, What I have is mine, the things I'm interested in, nobody really cares about. I want the story of my family history.
If I ever get married, we will maintain seperate accounts as well as a joint account. And I will not tolerate my family and my husbands family thinking they have a monopoly on anything.

If I ever get married, this has to be clare before the ring ever gets on my fingers. Both our families will be told together at a joint meeting that this is the way it is.
We are about each other, our new family unit comes first.

My husband and I will have to agree that instead of giving our family money, we will do better and give or share expertise. Rather than give a nephew 1000Naira, we will give stock options worth 1000Naira and expect to get a report on what he is doing with it.
Instead of buying a niece a Gucci purse, we will send the nisece to a money management class.
If the relatives don't like it, then they are shit out of luck

Instead of creating an atmosphere where one little unit becomes the breadwinner and envy of the others I would hope that if we are economically sorted, we would foster opportunities for the rest of the family.

No freebies. You want a freebie, come and work as an apprentice in Aunties shop.

If that's a no go with the husband.. then he can bugger off, I can do bad all by my damn self.

Soul said...


my heart goes out to anonnymous..

I once dated a guy whose father died whilst he was abroad... they went home to bury him in Ilorin. (from Lagos)
When they got to a certain point on the journey they were stopped by a delegation from their father's village... saying if they should turn back.
They said if they crossed a certain point, none of them.. the wife, and the 3 sons would not live to see the morning.

They returned to lagos to find their father's brother had his family into some of their father's properties and was trying to move into the main house!!.

Their father had many investments, especially in property, he had let his good for nothing brother manage it for him and this is what happened.
I had never seen a grown man breakdown and cry the way my partner at the time did. He was sobbing.
I will never forget the way he sounded. It was heart wrenching and I could do nothing to console him..

Noni Moss said...

Coincidentally, i came across this charity - which is specifically for Widows and Orphans in Nigeria.

At anonymous - i cant even begin to understand the pain or frustration you must be dealing with. It must be extra difficult having to deal with the added emotional turmoil of the false accusations. I'm glad that your mum was at least protected financially.

Uzo said...

@London Buki: Its sad that is more prevalent than we think

@Biodun: This is a worldwide issue....Sad i know

@Zaiprincesa: There really are no words

@Nomad: you have brough up a very important point. Women need to empower themselves not as a means of making any man feel less of a man but to protect herself. No one is promised tomorrow

@Anonymous: I would be honored to see your mom's finished book. I thank you for sharing your story. It drives home the fact that its not fiction and Nigerian movies dont have it wrong all the time. It is absolutely horrific the antics of these so called relatives. I am glad that your mom has found the strength to turn her pain into positivity for others to benefit from

@Azuka: Human beings are really just the worst. Even taking food from the funeral? How greedy is that?

@Noni Moss: I actually didnt write this myself. I do a lot of research on issues that i am passionate about. So this is a mesh of stuff from various papers. Nigerian women have rights. The issue is their lack of knowledge of these rights. Its down to the woman's ability to plan and stand her ground. These greedy relatives dont care about legal wills and all. They are out for themselves.

@ Soul: I love the idea of giving value rather than actual money. Makes a lot of sense and if you get a man that is willing to do this for you, i think half the battle of greedy relatives would have been won. I had never thought about it but its a fab idea. Thanks for sharing the story about your mom and her relatives. Its absolutely obscene.

@Noni Moss: Thanks a lot for the link. I will be checking out

Calabar Gal said...

Uzo - u really did ur research well. The plight of the Asian Widow is really a very sad one.