LAGOS, Nigeria – For years, Anthonia Nzegbunne, 59, watched her husband struggle with a chronic illness, one that eventually killed him. When he died eight years ago, Nzegbunne’s grief was compounded by another tragedy: the stigma, neglect and exploitation that widows around Nigeria have to endure.
Today, Nzegbunne works in a market stall in Ikotun, a suburb of Lagos, to support herself and her four children, but most of the shelves are empty. After her husband’s death, she had planned to sell half of their land and use the money to build a home on the other half. Instead, she lost everything.
“My husband’s relatives sold the land I was supposed to inherit,” Nzegbunne says. “Life has been difficult. I do not have the power to fight the battle.”
Under Nigeria’s federal law, if a married man dies, a portion of his assets automatically go to his wife. But in many parts of the country, women are denied the right to inherit. In some cases, their families and communities do not know or simply ignore the law. In others, the women were married under customary or religious law, which does not grant inheritance rights to wives and daughters.
Widows in Nigeria can suffer many abuses, aside from being denied inheritance rights. A large number are also denied child support or become victims of violence.
In many Nigerian cultures, when a man dies, his wife is accused of having a hand in his death until she proves her innocence through a series of rituals. “I was compelled to shave my hair and put on dark clothes for one year,” Nzegbunne says. A widow can be forced to sleep in the same room as her husband’s body during the mourning period, which can last days, or to drink the water used to clean the body.
Many widows in Nigeria are accused of witchcraft, which can lead to being ostracized, abuse or even death. Due to lack of reporting, there is no way to know how many women in Nigeria have been killed over witchcraft fears, but experts agree the number is rising.
Spreading the Word on the Law
The 2015 World Widows Report by the Loomba Foundation says there are 258 million widows around the world, of which 3.5 million are Nigerian. In May 2015, the federal government signed into law the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) (VAPP) Act to protect people against various forms of violence, including harmful widowhood practices. It was the first time federal law has expressly granted widows protection from abuse, but enforcement is weak.
“Some widows go to the extent of attempting suicide due to the harsh maltreatment,” says Chinwe Bode-Akinwande, founder of the eponymous CBA Foundation, a Lagos-based NGO that supports widows and their vulnerable children.
Bode-Akinwande, 42, is working to ensure that the VAPP Act is enforced at every level of government. To raise awareness of the law, the NGO visits state governments to push for bills like the VAPP to be enacted at a state level, and gets the word out through social media, using the Twitter hashtag #careisaction. “[It] means that without action, you truly don’t care, regardless of what you claim,” Bode-Akinwande says of the slogan.
Founded in 2015, the CBA Foundation has worked with over 4,100 underprivileged widows in Nigeria. Bode-Akinwande says that with the organization’s support, many widows have been able to start businesses of their own, while 42 children who had dropped out of school have been given scholarships to continue their education.
Chidinma Ejidike is one of those widows. “I have been neglected by my husband’s relatives since he died two years ago,” Ejidike, from Anambra state in southeast Nigeria, says. “When he died, his uncle said I did not have the right to his properties.”
But the foundation helped her by providing funds to open a hairdressing salon and organizing meetings with community leaders. Eventually, the leaders gave her back rightful ownership of her late husband’s land.
Protecting Widows with a Will
One simple solution to protecting a widow from mistreatment is for her husband to write a will, advocates say. Many men fail to write wills clearly stating how their assets will be distributed, leaving their wives vulnerable to abuse from in-laws.
But Felix King, founder of the Felix King Foundation, another NGO working to strengthen policies on the treatment of widows, worries that in-laws often disregard written wills, prompting the need for more advocacy.
“Our ambition is to see to the abolishment of widows’ maltreatment in Edo State,” King says. In June 2017, King presented a private bill to the Edo state house of assembly for the protection of widows, orphans and disadvantaged women from rights violations and other abuses. He wants the government to implement a law that will criminalize the maltreatment of widows. “We are hopeful the proposed bill will be passed.”
Chidinma Ejidike, the widow from Anambra state, wants to see the day when widows are respected, not feared or exploited. “Widows need to be protected from the injustice, dehumanization and deprivation of their husbands’ property,” Ejidike says. “With this in place, widows can live happily.”