Recently, I and a friend discussed widowhood rites in Nigeria. What brought about our discussion was the news of a certain woman who had to mourn her husband for six months.
To avoid being financially handicapped, her son took up her job as a causal worker until her mourning period was over.
My friend and I wondered out loud about how she would have coped financially if she had no son to take on her job.
Prohibition or restriction of movement during mourning periods is a common widowhood rite in most African countries including Nigeria. During this period, the movement of the widow is restricted and sometimes she stays in seclusion.
The duration of the period could be anywhere from a week to a year depending on the cultural and traditional practices of the late husband’s community.
Other widowhood rites observed include scraping or cutting of hair (on the head and pubic area) with a blunt razor, forced to eat from unwashed bowls, being forced to cry among others.
These practices are justified based on the belief that a widow needs to publicly demonstrate the grief she feels after the death of her husband.
Specifically, due to modernity and civilisation, some women in urban areas are not subjected to long periods of mourning as they have full-time jobs to return to.
Sadly, same cannot be said for widows in rural Nigeria who are generally poor and have little or no say in their affairs. This category of widows are forced to observe widowhood rites such as prohibition of movement which exclude them from making any form of income.
Due to the restriction of their movement, widows in rural areas are most times unable to manage whatever businesses or jobs they might have. This contributes greatly to making widows worse off than they were before the deaths of their better halves.
WIDOWHOOD IS GENDERED
It is not surprising to me that widowers in Africa enjoy lighter treatments and are not usually identified as poor compared to widows as society and culture is more favourable to the men. (Yes, I said it. You are free to label me a mad feminist or whatever people with thoughts like mine are called these days)
Widowers are not expected to mourn for a long period and can freely go about their businesses. Also, they are encouraged to mourn quickly and get a new wife. According to the World Bank, African men spend far more of their lives married than African women. From their early thirties to their early eighties, more than 80% of all men are married.
Clearly, the different treatment being given to men and women who mourn is a confirmation of society’s gendered and patriarchal nature.Why have a woman mourn for painfully long periods and restrict her movement? So, the men can have enough time to grab all the properties I suppose.
With no money or property to their name, widows are often poor and at the mercy of relatives and friends. For instance in Mali, widows are found to disproportionately head the poorest households.
Driven by extreme poverty, widows in Nigeria and many other countries often adopt coping strategies such as engaging in exploitative informal work, engaging the children in child labour, begging and sex work.
These strategies do little to improve their financial well-being. Instead, widows and their families continue to suffer for the rest of their lives through stigma, discrimination and poverty.
It has been said that widowhood is designed to suppress women and part of the patriarchal design of our society. I quite agree with this as it seems all the rules benefit no one other than the men.
So what can be done to help widows?
FOR A BETTER LIFE AFTER DEATH
For the plight of widows to improve Dominique Van De Walle, Lead Economist in the World Bank’s Research Department says changes in inheritance laws and their enforcement, cash transfer schemes, and preferential access to housing, training, employment and schooling for their children, social policies can potentially help compensate for the misfortune stemming from the shock of widowhood.
In addition, governments have the responsibility to take appropriate measures to modify social and culture patterns of conduct and protect women’s right to dignity and freedom and violence.
Also, the custodians of these cultures such as the Umuadas in Nigeria should be educated on the harmful nature of some widowhood rites among others.
It is my hope that these changes will come soon and women can stop being the wretched of the earth.
Before you leave, here are some facts about widows from the Loomba Foundation’s World Widows Report:
- There are an estimated 258,481,056 widows globally with 584,574,358 children (including adult children).
- The number of widows has grown by 9 percent since 2010, partly because of conflicts and disease.
- The biggest jump has been in the Middle East and North Africa where the estimated number of widows rose 24 percent between 2010 and 2015, partly due to the Syrian war and other conflicts.
- One in seven widows globally is living in extreme poverty.
- One in ten women of marital age is widowed. The proportion is around one in five in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
- One in three widows worldwide live in India or China.
- India, with an estimated 46 million widows, has overtaken China (44.6 million) to become the country with the largest number of widows.
- A significant number of girls are widowed in childhood – a reflection of the prevalence of child marriage in developing countries and the custom of marrying off young girls to much older men.
P.S As I write this, TVC is airing a documentary on women in rural Nigeria. One woman says she is a widow and she breaks stones for the sum of N100 a day. This is less than a dollar.
She complains about the money not being enough to feed her and her children.