In commemoration of the International Widows Day, a Nigerian-based Non-governmental Organisation, Felix King Foundation, launches a campaign in aid of widows, which challenges the merits of a sexist tradition that perpetuates their ill-treatment. Mary Nnah writes

After the death of their husbands, many women are saddled with contesting the right to safeguard their social and economic relevance. It has been estimated that there are about 258 million widows around the world, half of them living in extreme poverty and are subject to cruelty and violence. Up till now, a lot of widows face several forms of discrimination; while some of them, who were still young when they lost their husbands, face a lifetime of widowhood.

It is also a known fact that once widowed, women in many countries are often confronted with the denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites, and other forms of widow abuse. Some are dispossessed of their homes and physically abused even by members of their own family.

In many societies, especially Africa, a woman’s social status is intimately linked to that of her husband, so when he dies, a woman no longer has a place in society. To regain such social status, widows are expected to marry one of their husband’s male relatives, sometimes unwillingly. For many, the loss of a husband is only the first trauma in an enduring nightmare.

While some widows are stigmatised and seen as a source of shame in some societies, others are thought to be cursed in some cultures and are even associated with witchcraft. Such misconceptions lead to widows being detested and ill-treated.

The children of these women are not left out of the ordeal, as they are time and again affected both emotionally and economically. Widowed mothers, now supporting their families alone, are forced to withdraw their children from school and get them involved in some forms of trade to support their mothers. Such ordeals are often seen as right in terms of tradition and culture.

International Widows Day

To draw global attention to the plight of widows, the United Nations on December 22, 2010 at its 65th General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to establish June 23 of every year as the International Widows Day (IWD). Worldwide, the IWD works to identify widows and their circumstances. This was a step to empower the widows and help them regain their rights, as they have been neglected and violated for so long.

New Campaign

June 23 has been an annual, global day of action to raise awareness about the cultural discrimination against widows, but the founder of Felix King Foundation, Dr. Felix King, would rather that the day be declared a “Zero Maltreatment Day” for widows. He believes that if the maltreatment widows suffer is kept on the front burner, a lot of people would have it on their sub-consciousness as they mark the day every year.

Speaking during an event tagged, “Sign Up for June 23 as Zero Maltreatment Day for Widows”, held at the Moremi Hall of the University of Lagos, Akoka Lagos, to press for a Zero Maltreatment Day, King said, “Our tradition is very unfair to womanhood and that is why today, widows face a lot of challenges and this is not just here in Nigeria but there are lots of countries in the world that have the traditional practices that allow women to suffer a lot of human right violations.

“We are trying to put our voices down and say at this stage that tradition is sexist and we are saying no to that. So we are trying to see how we can strike out a balance whereby there would be equality among all human races.”

Consequently, the foundation mobilised millions of people cross the world for the sake of the widow’s right to living, for them to sign up for the Zero Maltreatment Day for June 23 every year. King expressed the belief that once that is done; the foundation would put it to the UN and ensure that it declares the day as a Zero Maltreatment day.

He said, “When people know that June 23 is a Zero Maltreatment day, subconsciously you tell your families, friends, colleague and community that this day is Zero Maltreatment Day for the widows and gradually the awareness would grow and the evil practiced against women will gradually fade away.”

Thus, in a captivating style at Moremi Hall, University of Lagos Akoka, Lagos, support was in no short supply for widows as the King; Pop star, Harrison Tare Okiri popularly known as Harry Song, rapper MI Abaga and comedian Bayegun Oluwatoyin, popularly known as Woli Arole among others urged the United Nations to declare June 23 a Zero Maltreatment Day instead.

The year’s global theme was “Developing Resources and Policies to Empower Widows” and so beyond mere celebration of this day as set aside by the UN, the foundation marked the Widows Rights Movement flag off, a movement that was simultaneously held across some parts of the world in Nigeria, Ghana, US, Canada and the UK.

According to King, “The widows’ rights movement is a Felix King Foundation’s organised international movement campaigning for the abolishment of widows maltreatment, while advocating for UN declaration of June 23, as a zero maltreatment day for widows in countries with traditional societies where women suffer human rights violations with membership spread across the world.

“We have realised the essence of direct mobilisation and that is why we are here today to get support for what we are doing online and as we are doing this here today, same thing is going on in America, Canada, and other parts of the world as we try to create millions of people’s movement for this course.”

Speaking further he said, “In Nigeria today, we have widows who are comfortable and we also have the disadvantaged widows and so our focus is on the disadvantaged widows. Today we have more than 8 million disadvantaged widows living in Nigeria with estimated 24 million children. So it is really huge in Nigeria and we have a lot of communities up till now that still hold unto those terrible traditional practices on widows.”

He explained that he decided to take the campaign to a female hostel at the University of Lagos, because, “This campaign is not really for widows but it is generally using women because every woman is potential widow and every widow is a potential victim. So the idea is when you mobilise these young people, they are going to use their tools to drive the message and also try to create that new orientation and also posers for people to understand that this why we have to be doing this. So what we are doing is a sort of movement where we are going to bring in millions of people so that June 23 can be declared as Zero Maltreatment Day for widows.”

Speaking on how widows can be liberated from the intersecting discrimination, King said to the UN that the road to total freedom and economic empowerment of widows starts with declaration of June 23 as zero maltreatment against widows, adding, “The ultimate goal of the day is to develop resources and policy to empower widows and allow them to have access to education, work, healthcare and lives free of violence and abuse, while enables them to create a life for themselves and their children following the death of their husband and ending a cycle of poverty and abuse.”

King who frowned at continuous victimisation of widows said once widowed, women in many countries often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of abuse.

Harrison Tare Okiri aka Harry Song, a pop star who performed at the event to support the movement said widow’s maltreatment in Nigeria and Africa at large should be outlawed. He said, “I vehemently speak against this obnoxious practice in our society and the UN should take a step forward by declaring June 23 Zero Maltreatment Day. The practice is widespread in developing countries and the appropriate authorities should move to ending it because maltreating our women, mother, daughters and sisters amounts to drawing ourselves backwards.”

Apart from performances from Harry Song, Wole Arole and MI, University of Lagos undergraduates also took time to demonstrate the ill of widows’ maltreatment in our society through a drama while Ororo Pattaya directed a short 60 second film with voice over by M.I Abaga which would be aired in both Nigeria and international media.

Past Collaboration

Beyond its campaign for a Zero Maltreatment Day, the foundation has since inception been at the forefront of the advocacy for widows not to be maltreated. They have gone a step further to empower them financially. Recently, in Benin City, the foundation handed off business grants and training certificate through its empowerment initiative to widows; all 96 of them. This was done in conjunction with the Edo State House of Assembly.

Not just in Edo, the empowerment initiative of the foundation has been felt in Lagos too as they have empowered vulnerable widows, police officers’ widows and awarded scholarship to their children, just as they also provided them with food stuffs and beverages.

At the Edo event, King, who presented the financial support to the widows, said that the foundation was set up to give voice to the challenges of widowhood in the communities and provide support for a better life for these widows through empowerment and skills acquisition initiatives. At the presentation, King had recalled that on June 23, 2016 in Lagos, the foundation began its journey of faith anchored on its understanding of the challenges of widowhood in an environment like Nigeria where superstitions and weak laws of inheritance have through the years conspired to make life very tough for these widows.

As a prelude to the Widows in Farming initiative- WIFARM AID programme scheduled for launch later in the year, they provided business support grants and skills acquisition to 96 widows at the ratio of three widows per constituency and the remaining numbers were selected by Edo State Widows Association.

He said, in subjecting widows to hardship and disinheriting them as is the practice in most areas, “We are trapped by the patriarchal dogma and superstition that tend to lower the status and welfare of widows in particular and women as a whole. I believe, every woman deserves the right to liberty and the right to succeed.”

It was with this belief that they introduced the freedom campaign for widows, using the hashtag #Abolishwidowsmaltreatment, with the coin of liberty as a symbol. They appealed to the legislative arms of government in Nigeria to do more in an attempt to end the menace of widows’ ill-treatment.

For the foundation, above and beyond marking the widows day annually, it’s focal objective is to create a platform that gives every widow an opportunity to get back on their feet again.