Widows in Nigeria, particularly in rural areas, can often be subject to discrimination, retribution, and exploitation. In efforts to overcome the impact of this harmful cultural practice, humanitarian aid organisations and development initiatives have begun to focus on the empowerment of rural widows. However, despite the provision of services by humanitarian organisations to mitigate the widows’ sufferings, there remains a proportional population of widows living in abject poverty and suffering from discriminations and deprivations in Nigeria. This comprehensive study examines the consequences of widows’ usage of the services of faith-based organisations and secular aid organisations to empower themselves in rural communities in Abia state Nigeria. It seeks to explore the ways the widows’ demonstrate their agency while receiving the support of the aid organisations, and emphasise the implication of prioritising their voice, perspectives and aspirations in the empowerment process.
The study adopted relational autonomy, capability, and cultural and institutional approaches as a framework to analyse the various levels (micro, meso and macro) that rural widows in Nigeria could be empowered. To explore these various levels, the study focused on: the widows’ perceptions of their vulnerabilities in their rural communities, and how their vulnerability translates to choices they make to transform their lives; the extent to which the aid organisations made attempts to address the needs of the widows in their service delivery; and ways the widows empowered themselves in the rural communities, especially when the services of the aid organisations were not available. The study used the constructivist ethnography and comparative approach, relying mainly on observations and semi-structured interviews carried out over a period of 7 months by four aid organisations (two faith-based, and two secular) in 12 communities in Abia state Nigeria, where the aid organisations operate. The sample population was the widow beneficiaries, and the staff of the aid organisations.
The research revealed that although the aid organisations were the major providers of services to the widows, the widows also empowered themselves through their individual and collective capacities, and by utilising support from indigenous groups and social networks to enhance their well-being in their communities. This despite the fact that widowhood stigmatisation and discriminatory practices infringed these women’s right to self-esteem, respect and dignity. The study also shows the importance of including all levels at which women can operate as agents in any assessment of rural widows’ empowerment. The outcome from the different levels of analysis showed that the grassroots support groups were relevant in the widows’ empowerment in the rural communities, particularly in their provision of immediate support in addressing the widows’ exertion of their agency. The study goes on to suggest that a better empowerment practice for improving the lives of rural widows in Nigeria would frame widows as beneficiaries, rather then organisational objectives, and identify their aspirations, specific needs, and the social actors who are relevant in their empowerment.
The study closes by offering some policy recommendations for advancing the empowerment of widows in rural areas in Nigeria, including that:
- Aid organisations should play advocacy roles in lobbying for change in customs infringing women’s rights to their husbands’ property when they are widowed, and address cultural norms inhibiting their access to other resources.
- Aid organisations should pay more attention to providing information about and access to credit facilities; the study showed that most of the widows believed that access to micro-finance banks is a plausible strategy for empowerment.
- The study found that foreign donor guidelines worked to limit the autonomy of widows, and effected the flexibility of aid organisations. It is recommended to donors that this power imbalance be addressed by allowing aid organisations to decide how and where funds will be spent.
- To avoid institutional damage via reliance on aid, it is recommended that donors work with aid organisations to build their capacity, and become self-reliant.
- Collaboration with indigenous groups and communities is vital to enhancing the capacity of aid organisations, requiring investment in the development of networks and data gathering communities.