THE RIGHTS AND PROTECTION OF WIDOWS IN NIGERIA By Efe Etomi

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President, African Women Lawyers Association (NIG)

As we mark International Widows Day 2021 all over the world, I would like to use this opportunity to send my best wishes to all widows in Africa and especially those in our country, Nigeria.

The International Widows Day is a United Nations day of action to highlight and combat discrimination and injustice suffered by widows worldwide. In a 2020 report by the Inter Press Service, the estimated number of widowed persons worldwide was approximately 350 million, with the large majority of about 80 percent, being widowed women.

The high death rates arising from the Covid-19 pandemic is a factor that has contributed to an even higher increase in the number of widowed persons across the world and in Nigeria. The United Nations (UN) notes the following factors which affect widows in developing countries: Poverty, Violence, Health and Conflict-related situations.

In Nigeria, the scenario becomes complex due to religious, traditional and customary beliefs which have collectively increased the plight of the average widow.

These beliefs, along with the strong element of poverty leading to dependence, have led to the maltreatment and subjugation of widows within most Nigerian communities.

There still exist instances of mourning rites involving widows sleeping with their deceased husbands’ corpses, shaving of widows’ heads, seclusion, wearing of black/white clothes, sleeping and sitting on the floor or mat, and forceful marriage of widows to other members of the deceased husband’s family in a bid to “protect the family lineage”.

In other instances, the deceased husband’s family demands and sometimes forcefully retrieves properties from the widow which belong to the late husband.

These properties may, in some cases, belong jointly to the late husband and the widow. Some widows lose financial certainty and independence due to the death of their husbands. It is therefore unsettling that unwholesome practices such as these are still being practiced in the current era.

The efforts by traditional, religious and civil institutions to bring an end to these practices, although have gained traction, are yet to deliver on significant and sustainable solutions to the plights of widows in our society.

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) provides for fundamental rights including the right to life, dignity of the human person, personal liberty, freedom from discrimination.

It further prohibits discrimination on the ground of sex. On the basis of the foregoing, the widowhood practices and culture in Nigeria violate the fundamental rights of widows who are made subject to such practices.

There has been persistent advocacy by various women’s rights groups over the years for the enactment of specific legislation to provide statutory supports for efforts geared at protecting the vulnerable widows from harmful families and societies.

This led to the inclusion of specific provisions for the protection of widows within the Violence Against Persons (Prohibitions) Act (VAPP) 2015.

Commendably, the Act makes it an offence to subject a widow to harmful traditional practices for which a prison term of 2 years applies or a fine of N500,000 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira).

It is to be noted that even an attempt to commit an act of violence, either acting alone or in conjunction with a third party, in connection with a widow is a punishable offence.

While this is a laudable effort, the Act is limited in scope to the Federal Capital Territory and requires domestication at State levels for the provisions to become applicable across the 36 States of the Federation. Since 2015, only 14 States have adopted the Act and they are: Anambra, Benue, Cross River, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Enugu, Edo, Lagos, Rivers, Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Plateau, and the Kaduna States.

Rivers State, in addition to domesticating the Act, has also passed specific legislation to tackle the issue of widows’ rights which is the Dehumanizing and Harmful Traditional Practices Abolition Amendment Law 2020.

This law goes a step further than the Act by outlining harmful traditional practices against widows and this serves to clear any ambiguity in the law as well as provide guidance to law officers on actionable practices for prosecution.

It is worthy of note that despite the adoption of the Act by these States, there has been an increase in gender-based violence, which includes violence towards widows.

The frequency of the occurrence of such incidents does not correlate with the prosecution of offenders. Prosecution of offenders under the laws has been curtailed by religious and cultural rules of silence and suppression of instances of victimization.

Efforts to make formal reports to law enforcement authorities usually result in threats or persuasion to refrain by family members, community or religious leaders.

There is also the concern about the knowledge gap of some law enforcement officers, in connection with the existence of the law or effective means of prosecution.

This leads to a loss of confidence in the judicial system and prevents further reporting by widows.

Suffice to say that gradual progress is being made in respect to the rights and protection of widows in Nigeria, however, the pace of progress is slow.

There is a need for more urgent steps to be taken to protect women who are most vulnerable, having lost their spouses.

There is the need to sensitize women in communities where these practices are notably prevalent and provide consistent education on their rights and remedies available to them under the law. The widows should be encouraged to boldly report all instances of threats or actual violence against them to the relevant authorities.

With the current dominant themes of gender diversity, female inclusion, and protection against gender-based violence, there is the need for strong collaborations to take advantage of the current drive and create more suitable, healthy, safe and balanced environments for widows to thrive.

These collaborations should, of necessity, be forged by professionals in the legal, health, financial, safety, mental health and civil spaces to create special developmental portfolios for widows in Nigeria.

It is evident that while high-level engagements with legislators across the States set the general legal and regulatory framework for the protection of the widows, a bottom-up approach or grassroots strategy will serve to ensure actual implementation of the laws.

The African Women Lawyers Association (AWLA), will within its capacity, continue to engage with State Governors to domesticate the VAPP Act in their respective States, as well as providing training and support to law enforcement agencies on the prosecution of offenders.

AWLA will also form and strengthen collaborations with other professional associations both locally and internationally in order to achieve progress on a wider scale.

AWLA also intends to provide support to widows and encouragement.

Women helping women!

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