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Widowhood represents social death in several communities; the loss, a devastating blow – an understatement.
The death of a husband and father signals loss of stability and status for many families in Nigeria. In many households, the male figure often stands as a breadwinner and in cases where the wives do not have a source of their own, the husband would then be the sole provider such that when he dies, the family often feels something way beyond bereavement. His death robs his family of their financial and social standing and thus they suffer the most extreme forms of poverty, discrimination, stigma, physical, sexual and mental abuse.
For years, the term “widowhood” was associated to elderly retired females who had lost their husbands at some point in their lives and had decided to live out their golden years alone. Today, widowhood stares at us in a larger proportion as younger women are now becoming widows.
Statistics show that higher mortality rate among middle-aged men especially in comparison with lower mortality rate among their female counterparts, a prevalence of younger wives than husbands and so on are some of the reasons for the high number of widowhood among younger women today. Their children face horrors such as child marriage, illiteracy, forced labour, human trafficking, homelessness and sexual abuse.
The 2015 World Widows Report by the Loomba Foundation reveals an estimation of 258 million widows with 584.6 million offspring around the world and nearly one in ten live in extreme poverty. Together with their children, they are malnourished, exposed to diseases and subjected to extreme forms of deprivation. They experience targeted murder, rape, prostitution, forced marriage, property theft, eviction, social isolation and physical abuse. Another estimate reveals that about 1.5 million widows’ children in the world die before their fifth birthday.
To give special recognition to the situation of widows world over, the United Nations General Assembly thus declared June 23rd International Widows’ Day. The day effects actions to raise awareness on and help widows and their children who suffer through poverty, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, conflict and social injustice- highlighting the “Invisible Issues faced by these “Invisible women” in our society.
Widowhood practices have attracted global attention on violence against women. Sufficient evidence suggests that widows are severely affected financially, socially, sexually and psychologically.
Abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development. Today, we hear that millions of widows endure all of these hardships for the sake of their children, just so they can keep them.
For their children, they want to do the unbelievable, the seemingly unattainable. This is the only thing they have (their dividend, their treasure) and so they want to hold on to them, providing them with the most basic needs, however little or insufficient even if they are far cry from luxury.
According to World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law 2016 Report, out of 173 countries, 90% have at least one law limiting women’s economic participation, including constraints on their ability to inherit or own land. Unmarried women live with their parents; married women belong to their husbands. Then we wonder who exactly protects the widows?
In Africa, widows are victims of all kinds of harassment and discrimination. After losing their husbands, widows may suffer double blow – (1) financial hardship and (2) accusation of witchcraft. While in the process, they are denied access to their husbands’ properties. Some callous culture and tradition even go all the way, demanding the widow to drink the water used in washing the dead husband’s body or to have sex with an in-law or a total stranger. It is that bad!
It is bad to the extent that women in several Nigerian communities dread the experience of widowhood. Research reveals that about 15 million widows in Nigeria are in dire need of every form of assistance, another report reveals that the number of widows in the North-East had sky-rocketed from 10,000 in 2013 to a higher figure due to insurgency.
Several widows find themselves homeless as their husband’s families may neglect them, confiscate properties owned by their late husbands because many have little or no education or skills , they suffer with their children.
In the bid to fend for themselves and their children, they face humiliation. They beg for food. Yes! It is that bad. Widows and their children sometimes go without good meals for days.
By all means they want to put food on their table, they want to pay their children’s school fees, they want to address their health issues, they want to maintain the roof over their heads and while at it, they meet countless obstacles. They are accused of witchcraft; they are also sometimes tagged “husband snatchers” even by their so-called close friends.
As a nation, we have a mandate to ensure widows are empowered and protected from abuse, from stigmatization, from humiliation and more so from financial hardship. With women becoming more educated, economically independent and aware of their rights particularly in the 21st century, they become more immune to psychological stress and other extreme forms society make them go through. They are beginning to stand up for their rights by saying no to barbaric practices.
Providentially, reports reveal that The Nigerian Government already signed into law Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) (VAPP) Act, an act which is meant to protect citizens against various forms of violence, including negative practices against widows.
To this end, former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon urges the world “We must erase the social stigmatization and economic deprivation that confronts widows; eliminate their high risk of sexual abuse and exploitation; and remove the barriers to resources and economic opportunities that constrain their future.”