GBV: Seeking Justice for Disinherited Widows

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In this report, Funmi Ogundare who highlights the plights of widows, writes that there is a need for more sensitisation that will ensure that those who have been disinherited and face one form of discrimination or another, will have access to the right information that will enable them get justice

Mrs. Paulina Kayode, 47, had lost her husband 17 years ago. Before he died , she and her husband had worked as a caterer and auto mechanical engineer to cater for their family of seven and ensured that they lived a comfortable life.

Things seemed to be going on fine in their home, until he fell sick when he traveled to his hometown in Ondo State in 2004. He had a stroke. He was brought back to Lagos and taken from one hospital to another to seek good healthcare, but his situation never improved. Unfortunately, he died.

However, rather than sympathise with Paulina on the demise of her husband, his family members blamed her for his death, took his corpse away from the hospital he was taken to for treatment and taken back to his home town for burial against his wife’s wish.

Paulina was neither allowed to witness her husband’s burial, nor was she allowed to mourn him properly. Rather, she was subjected to hurtful comments and accused of causing the death of her husband.

After the burial, his family members brought back the sponge with which they used to bath the corpse, gave it to her and forcefully went away with his valuables and property located in Lagos and Ondo Town, but not without threatening her that she will not reap the fruit of her labour on her children. Two out of five of her children had died in controversial circumstances.

This reporter met her on the eve of Christmas at Gods Grace for Widows and Orphanage Home, Agbowa, Ikosi, an outskirt of Ikorodu, Lagos, during a programme organised for widows.

Looking dejected with tears streaming down her face, she told THISDAY her story, “I am from Edo State and was married to a man from Ondo State. He went to his home town one day and on getting back home, he suddenly fainted and woke up later with a stroke. It was a spiritual attack. Thereafter, we began to take him from one hospital to another with no improvement.

“Unfortunately he died. His sisters came to my house, but rather than sympathise with me, they told me to use my hands to cover my face. I did as they said and they asked me if I saw anything and I replied them saying I didn’t see anything.

“In disbelief, I heard them saying that is how it will be for you and that I should go and buckle up. I felt so bad at that instance. The little things my husband had after he died, were taken away . When he died in the hospital, they took his corpse away from there to the village to seek what actually killed him and buried him without my knowledge.

” By the time they came back to Lagos, they brought his sponge to me, I wasn’t told what I should use it for. They cursed me saying I will not reap the fruit of my labour. Before I knew what was happening, my daughter died six years ago. Another of my son who was an undergraduate in Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State, died four months ago.”

Ever since, she said her husband’s family members never bothered to look for her, neither were they bothered about how the rest of her children survived in life.

“We have been facing this battle since then,” Paulina said.

Confronted by this battle from her in-laws, Mrs. Paulina Kayode had to eke a living from menial jobs such as hawking sachet water, laundering and cleaning for people to cater for her children.

On the sudden death of her son, she said she believed that he was killed through a spiritual attack adding that while he was sick, he was taken to a church for prayers where they were told that one of his uncles had a hand in the attack.

” I have lost a child with a promising future. He was the personal assistant to Davido’s younger brother in Adeleke University. They killed him through a spiritual attack. I took him to a church where they prayed for him, despite all the efforts taken , the boy finally died and since then, none of my husband’s family members had called me till today to sympathise with us.”

Asked if she is aware of any of the laws protecting widows against discrimination, she said she is aware, but incapacitated to follow it through, adding that government should come to the aid of widows to support them.

Mrs. Kayode’s case is not an isolated one, as many women in her shoes have faced disinheritance, one form of discrimination or another from their in-laws, economic insecurity, stigmatisation, and harmful traditional practices.

Investigation by THISDAY showed that in many countries especially West Africa, disinheritance cuts across ethnic and socio-cultural groups. Disinheritance is a form of Gender Based Violence ( GBV) against women which threatens their security.

It is also a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom from discrimination as provided for in Section 42 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), which states that no citizen of Nigeria shall be discriminated regardless of their place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion.

Widows do not have equal inheritance rights, and they may be stripped of their land, evicted from their home, or even separated from their children. They may be denied access to inheritance, bank account and credit which can have significant financial impacts for them and their children, thereby making them to live in extreme poverty.

They are particularly vulnerable partly because of weakened customary practice and social safety nets.

Although accurate information is limited, it has been estimated that there are some 258 million widows around the world, with over 115 million (nearly one in 10) of them living in extreme poverty.

Mrs. Grace Boluwajoko is also a widow who lost her husband 15 years ago, when she turned 50. She founded God’s Grace for Widows and Orphanage Home in July 1997 to help young helpless widows and their children who have been discriminated against.

Boluwajoko, who equally, faced insults and stigmatisation from her in-laws, narrated how the home was established after she fell sick with a swelling on her leg and was treated for about two and a half years with no improvement.

” The doctors concluded that they were going to amputate my leg and I rejected it. I prayed about it and the Lord healed me and I promised him that I will dedicate the rest of my life to serve him. So God told me to take care of young widows and their children and since then, the Lord has been using people to support us in Agbowa, Ikosi to put smiles on the faces of the widows rather than allow them to live in extreme poverty.”

So far, she has been empowering many widows through vocational skills such as tie-dye, soap making, as well as garri and fufu making for sale.

Boluwajoko, who is a mother of five with a widowed daughter told THISDAY, ” I grouped them together with the local women to make garri and fufu from cassava for sale. I kept some gains for them and at the end of the day, when they were ready to leave, I give them a small token for their trade.”

About 60 of the children of the widows, have also been given scholarship to university level.

Widowhood Practices in Ghana and support mechanism

In some West African countries, especially Ghana, the inheritance of deceased properties by his widows is a big challenge. For instance, among the matrilineal society of the Ashanti, properties of the deceased husband are inherited by their sisters’ sons or nephews, while the widows and their children are left to fend for themselves or seek support from their own matrilineal clan.

According to THISDAY checks, the vulnerable women are mostly the victims of painful widowhood rites and have no source of livelihoods. There is the fear of hardship and hunger and that the education of their children will be truncated.

Rather than allow widows live in untold hardship, the Mama Zimbi Foundation , inaugurated the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) in 2007 and has been able to integrate economic, social, sustainable and cultural transformation tools into an educational package in Ghana.

Till date, WANE has been able to form over 400 widowhood clubs and associations with over 8,000 widows in free membership. They are encouraged to learn to grow in self-confidence, developing new skills, as well as new friendship to support their families and communities.

Impact of United Nation Population Fund on Widowhood

The United Nations Population Fund advocates for legislative reform and the enforcement of laws to promote and protect women’s right; including widow’s rights to reproductive health choices and informed choices.

Empowering women means ensuring that protective laws exists, but even more so, educating them and their communities about these laws, regulations and policies that affect their rights and responsibilities in family life.

The fund also advocates for the rights of the world’s 600 million adolescent girls and join hands with United Nation Women to support women’s empowerment programmes and to end violence against women.

Impact of Non Government Organisations, Associations and Government on Widows

Mr. Chris Kehinde Nwandu is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of CKN Foundation established basically to assist indigent Nigerians. In its seven years of existence, it has empowered over 100 widows with little funds and start-ups across Nigeria.

He listed some of the challenges confronting the widows to include; health care, accommodation, feeding, clothing for themselves and education of their children, as most can’t afford to send them to school.

” Most of them who face disinheritance issues, depend on their daily petty trading to make ends meet. We empower them with little funds to embark on petty trading or any business of their choice, but the funds are so little to go round or even meet their immediate needs. They barely survive. Even some had to resort to sending their children out to hawk and in the extreme cases, beg. Only a few could raise fund to hire shops to engage in buying and selling, ” he stressed.

Dr.Regina Inem also founded Ragamos Foundation to among others, improve the economic power of widows, through start-up grants, as well as training and mentorship support for them through entrepreneurial initiatives.

The foundation however has its limitations as Inem said, ” many are illiterate, they don’t have WhatsApp messenger on their phones, sometimes, even getting them on phones is a challenge, so most times, you have to reach them physically.

“They also have poor financial literacy skills which lead to business failure. You end up starting afresh with them.”

The widows are also weighed down by emotional issues due to hardship which makes them suffer mental health issues that affects their ability to care for their children.

However, the foundation has been empowering them through financial literacy skills in partnership with Access Bank and support their grieving process through mental wellness therapy and sharing God’s words with them.

For those who have been disinherited, the founder said it ensures that lawyers assist them in legal process for free so that they could help get their husband’s properties especially for those that are next of kin.

Mrs. Bolaji Dada is the Lagos State Commissioner for Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. Her office has a department which liases with widow-focused NGOs to empower and train them.

” We have boot camp where we train them for four weeks on tie-dye, make-up and headgear (gele) tying, confectionaries, ankara craft and throw pillows; and set them up. These are skills that they don’t need shops for to be able to start their own business.”

On the impact so far since she became commissioner, she said, “such training was done once in a year in the last administration, but when Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu became governor, we started doing it every quarter in six centres across the state. We also go from community to community where government’s impact is yet to be felt.”

For disinherited widows, she said her office also works with local government chairmen across the state to organise empowerment programmmes where widows are empowered on their rights as women and their inheritance, as well as where they needed to go if they have such complaints.

At such programmes, lawyers and judges are also invited to teach them what to do and when issues of disinheritance arise, they are referred to the Lagos State Ministry of Justice.

Unfortunately, widows who are disinherited, are either ignorant of the laws such as Maputo Protocol and Violence Against Person (Prohibition) VAPP Act, that could make them access justice or incapacitated to follow it through.

Mrs. Amanda Asagba is the President of African Women Lawyers Association ( AWLA). In a telephone interview with THISDAY, she emphasised on the Maputo Protocol and the Child Rights Act which protect women and children, saying that it is no longer popular in Nigeria.

According to her, “the laws are there, but it is effective for those who can afford to pursue justice. The Maputo protocol is a very compulsory law. When I read it, I was very happy as it ensures the total protection for the woman. Unfortunately that protocol is not even that popular in Nigeria as we speak. We need to do a lot of sensitisation on that protocol.”

For widows who are poor and are not able to afford justice in Nigeria, the president said the ECOWAS and Africa Union (AU) courts are there to help out once people are fortunate to come in contact with some pro bono lawyers who are ready to take up their matter.

“If you are very poor and there is no way you can afford justice in Nigeria and you are fortunate to come in contact with some pro bono lawyers who are ready to take your matter up , on the premise that you cannot guarantee justice from the issue of violence, you can escalate it from the regional courts, “she said.

Asagba added that people could also exhaust the local remedy which has do with reporting the matter to the appropriate authorities such as the police.

“If the police refuse to prosecute, then look for the necessary NGOs like African Women’s Association, FIDA , we also have the Legal Aid Council and Human Right Commission to access justice. Justice is not out of the reach of the poor because these agencies are there to help the poor and vulnerable.

“We need to do more sensitisation because a lot of these people we are talking about don’t even have the necessary information to know that they can access these people. So we are taking the sensitisation to the grassroot.”

The association, she noted, has taken widowhood discrimination to another level, adding that a committee had been set up to drive sensitisation.

“We have been going to the church and mosque, and also remote areas in the different states of the federation. This is what we have been doing in the past four years and we have been on top of it in most states. At this time, we are going the extra mile for widows.”

The association also offers some forms of dispute resolution mechanism, as the president said, “we have our legal clinic every Friday in all our branches all over the federation. It is a free legal clinic, you can work in and report your case and the other party to see how we can resolve these issues amicably.

“But in a case whereby the other party is not interested in amicable resolution, we take it to the next level. We go to court and get the police involved and they are supported.

“If it is the one that the other party has to pay for damages, we do the normal filing in court for damages. I must say that women who seek for our services are very happy, that at last there is light at the end of the tunnel and at the end of the day, they are able to get justice.

” The minute you have, you know there is somebody out there fighting your course. With that alone, there is a level of comfort.

“You see them looking dejected, but the minute the widows come to us, we tell them what we can do for them , encourage them and tell them about their rights and tell them that the injustice must stop.

“With that alone you will see the widow leaving with smiles on their faces knowing that there is help. That for me , its 50 per cent battle won. When they don’t have any place to go, that alone is suicidal.

“Now they have hope and the confidence is there and no matter how bad, we are going to get justice at the end of the day. There is no woman that deserves any form of injustice in Nigeria. This is what we are fighting for . Women must have justice. Enough of indignity to women, it has to stop.”

Mrs. Jessica Jidanke-Ofia is the former Chairperson, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Taraba Branch. The association has led in the participation of the drafting and signing into law the Violence Against Person (Prohibition) VAPP Act.

She said its activities regarding the plight of widows ranges from sensitisation and advocacy on the rights of women and debunking discriminatory cultural and religious practices that impede such rights.

“We talk to traditional, religious leaders and community heads especially in communities where such acts are prevalent, there is representation in court for widows who are victims of such discrimination and abuses; and legislative advocacy to influence policies and laws that protect women and their properties.”

*This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation.

Quotes

“Most of them who face disinheritance issues, depend on their daily petty trading to make ends meet. We empower them with little funds to embark on petty trading or any business of their choice, but the funds are so little to go round or even meet their immediate needs. They barely survive”

“We need to do more sensitisation because a lot of these people we are talking about don’t even have the necessary information to know that they can access these people. So we are taking the sensitisation to the grassroot”