The maltreatment of widows in Nigeria is increasingly alarming. For Mr. Felix King Eiremiokhae, Founder, Felix King Charity Foundation, engaging custodians of customs in communities will best tackle the challenge. In this interview with Mary Ekah, he reveals how his foundation is achieving this, and why he developed a soft spot for widows and more
What is responsible for the maltreatment of Nigerian widows?
Lack of documentation otherwise called Will. During our last conference in Lagos most men realised that they needed to see this as important as anything. At that conference we were able to push the message to people that it could be you and every single person is a potential victim. Will, could help tackle the problem. Before now most men believe you must get to 70 years before you write your will but things have changed. You can write your will now and that does not mean you will die tomorrow.
For instance, if you ask those perpetrating this customs that if you die would you like your brother to inherit everything you have worked for? He will tell you no. So to guard against this type of thing, will is a major deterrent. If we open our hearts to one another, only then this prejudice that is turning widowhood into a catastrophic nightmare in our communities will gradually fade away. I do believe someday no widow will any longer be denied her rights to inheritance, her rights to human right, her rights to economic freedom and the right to child welfare. The Felix King Charity Foundation N30 million widows’ empowerment fund for 2017 registration as well as screening is now on to help these widows kick-start a new life. I believe when empowered these widows you automatically secure the future of their children. I am doing this not because I have, but because I know too well what it means not to have.
So what informed your decision to start Felix King Charity Foundation?
The foundation was officially launched in 2015 and this is more of a divine mandate, a mandate to provide succour to vulnerable widows and their children in Nigeria. Because it is a divine mandate, it is God who knows why He gives it to me. However, from personal experience it is heartbroken once we see what widows in Nigeria go through. And this suffering and maltreatment are made possible by customs and traditions. However, our aim is not only to ameliorate their suffering and agony but also bring their plight to the government and communities and why we should stop it.
What do you mean by personal experience?
What I mean is that this is what we see every day in the society. From one part of the society to another there is always a widow close to us hence the awareness of the inhumane treatment meted on these people. Because customs allowed a lot of these things it is fast becoming unbearable yoke. I believe this defies religion because sometimes people will merge tradition and religion and when you look at religion and human dignity, people with conscience would then start to think that these things are not proper because these widows are one’s mother, sister or daughter. So we believe is something we need to add our voice to and apart from trying to lend our support we think if others begin to condemn this act and desist from practicing them then the aim of ending this obnoxious customs may have come sooner than later.
Apart from creating this awareness, what other things have you done?
When you talk about widowhood in Nigeria the problem is bigger than we think. Statistics show that we have over eight million disadvantaged widows and with an estimated 21 million children. This is a huge epidemic that Nigeria is sitting on. So what we are trying to do is to lend our little support towards reducing their plight. We have set up an empowerment scheme, which is startup trade fund. Through the scheme, hundreds of widows have benefited from it. We help them identity trading opportunity and finance it for them. So it is like giving them hook rather than fish. Each of these women got an average of three hundred and fifty thousand naira (N350, 000) last year to start a business because we believe that once their source of income is guaranteed then the future of their kids is equally secured.
In addition to this, we also believe that children education is very important and unfortunately we also discovered that most of these children have dropped out of school upon the demise of their breadwinners. To ensure most of them go back to school, we have set up a scholarship scheme. Last year, tens of the children were given scholarship and like I said, this is nothing compared to 21 million I stated earlier however we need to start from somewhere. Again, we’ve established medical scheme to support some of these widows’ children and we give them social support in terms of food materials too.
But we did something very profound last year December by instituting a programme solely dedicated to the widows of Police officers. It is easy for people to criticise the Police but the sacrifice they pay is so enormous therefore we did a programme dedicated to the widows of policemen. It was quite insightful because the Police structure does not quite support these widows and their children.
And this year January, we have flagged off the N30 million widows’ empowerment fund, where we will be disbursing money to the widows for those who never benefitted to use to start up their businesses. We have broken them into income groups and at this stage screening and registration are going on and when the process has been completed we start disbursing the fund. It is a nationwide programme but the first phase begins in Edo and Lagos states. This year our priority is on the military and the policemen widows.
How would this fund be distributed?
This is not a loan. It is an empowerment scheme and when we give them this money we try to encourage them to start a trade. It is not a loan but a free startup finance scheme. So what we do is to work with groups. For instance, we are working with widows’ associations in the states where the associations know all their members and we are screening them and from that screening we give them this money and we encourage them. Also, the best we are doing for them is bringing in those who can supervise them but I strongly believe a widow would rather put that money into something good than squander it. But for the police we are working with the police authority, where all these women could be identified.
Do you have a system that monitors their progress?
We have a system that monitors their progress. Again, when you give ten people money there are some who may not make good use of the money but presently the report we have received is satisfactory. We have visited a few of them and we found that most of them are doing well and living comfortable life. For instance, there is a woman who started with N300, 000 and now she has raised over a million naira. That is some cheering news and we are encouraged to do even more.
How would you rate last year’s event in relation to the awareness on the plight of widows in Nigeria?
Being the inaugural edition I think it was a huge success. This year we are taking last year’s gains to the second phase of the campaign. Last year was the right of widows and the idea was widows to know they actually have a right. They have right to basic amenities, right to live a normal life, right to their deceased spouses’ property and estate and right to heritance. However, this year goes beyond just fighting for their rights. We need to look at the root of disinheriting widows, root of widows’ maltreatment and root cause of widows living a deplorable life.
This root is mobilising people and driving the message and giving a voice to a campaign whereby we can all push for the maltreatment of these widows to end. So we are kick-starting the ‘end widows’ maltreatment now’ campaign this year because once you end the maltreatment all these other things will become a non-issue. When people stop maltreatment of widows by denying them their right to inheritance that rightly belong to them then we will be fine. When we start to have a situation when you can abolish maltreatment whereby a woman’s dignity is being restored and not trampled upon because she lost her husband, when we get the abolition of maltreatment right then every other thing would be sorted. The widow will no longer be ejected from the house where she built with her husband or denied the happiness of living a normal life.
What has been the government response to this crusade?
I think the government is making its effort but again this is the problem that has been on from generation to generation. So what we are trying to do now is to form a lobby group where we will be bringing in traditional rulers, local chiefs, village heads and community leaders because they are the custodians of these customs and traditions. We need to lobby and engage them in a way that they won’t misunderstand it. We have to engage them properly by passing out the right messages and make them see the custom as archaic and the reason we must end it. It is because of this we are collaborating with the Edo State government to see how we can take the campaign to the hinterland but most importantly is about how much we are able to lobby the traditional rulers and council of chiefs.
Are you looking at the possibility of sponsoring a bill to enhance the existing widow’s right in the constitution?
The problem goes beyond sending a bill to the National Assembly because we are dealing with customs and they are custodians of these customs. In the constitution of the federal republic, the right is there that a woman should have right to inheritance of her husband and father but a lot of people still hide under the guise of customs to perpetrate this evil in their different communities. And again, some of these widows do not even know their right but of course they have right base on the judgment by the Supreme Court some years back. However, when you are dealing with sensitive things like this you don’t use force rather use lobby strategy so that the custodians of these customs can support you and bring an end to it. Widows’ challenges are more of family and kindred setup than a national issue. If you make an act, the problem will continue because these widows will need to go to court to reclaim their right but where will they get the necessary finances to prosecute such case? Therefore, to make progress in this regard, it is more of engaging and lobbying the community leaders comprises traditional rulers, council of chiefs, village heads and elders than sponsoring a bill.
How many widows did the foundation empower in 2016 and what is your projection in 2017?
In 2016, we empowered over one thousand widows and tens of hundred of their children also benefited from our scholarship scheme. Actually, we are not doing it to count numbers but we believe that what we are doing should be able to solve problems and if others join to do it, it may push the challenge to the barest minimum. This year we are putting a fund, which is the N30 million widows’ empowerment fund, so everything we are running this year comes from the fund to support these widows. This year is more about empowerment. So that is what we are going to be doing this year.
Where is the annual widows’ conference heading this year?
We are going to Edo State this year because we want to use it to flag off ‘end widows’ maltreatment campaign’. We will be flagging it off on June 23, 2017 where we will be hosting a lot of chiefs, traditional rulers and custodians of customs, legislative arm of government and executive hopefully, human rights community. We will be appealing to them and help them understand the menace widows’ maltreatment cause and why it should be abolished. At the end, these people will take the message back home and perhaps educate those who have little or no knowledge of the menace of widows’ maltreatment in the society.
What is Widows’ Empowerment Centre all about?
Presently, we have been running the foundation from Oracle Experience office, which is our parent company, so the widows’ empowerment centre will be strictly dedicated to addressing the issues of widows because right now they come to the Oracle’s office with their complaints, needs and challenges. So what we have done now is to set up a proper structure whereby we can run a foundation outside of the Oracle Experience. Therefore, the Widows’ Empowerment Centre will now be the centre that addresses anything that has to do with widows’ plight, complaints and challenges with dedicated personnel handling these.