Widows in Benue State are still suffering from harmful traditional practices despite the evolution of several customs and cultures among the major ethnic groups over the years. Findings by our correspondent in four different ethnic groups—Tiv, Idoma, Igede and Etulo—showed that harmful widowhood practices are still prevalent in varying degrees in all parts of the state.
Some widows who shared their stories with our correspondent in Makurdi, the state capital, maintained that no one is immune to the practices, either in the short or long run as maybe dictated by their husbands’ families, except they are resisted.
The treatment meted to a widow ranges from forcefully shaving her hair, compelling them to sleep alone in a room or with the remains of her husband, forcing her to remarry or be “inherited” by her late husband’s relative, to compulsorily wailing at intervals and remaining in confinement in the name of mourning, as well as refunding dowry to her late husband’s family, among other practices.
For Madam Rose Sunday, her dream of raising children with the best education money could ever acquire simply slipped into the dustbin of history that fateful day in January 1990 when her husband passed away.
Madam Sunday lived happily with her husband for nearly 18 years before he died at the Military Hospital in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
He was a soldier and native of Idoma. His death became the beginning of hardship for his family of seven children. They never recovered from the situation as the girls were forced into early marriage while the boys were forced out of school to engage in menial jobs.
“Just like a dream, we were evacuated with all our belongings when the corpse of my husband was being taken to the village for burial, one week after his passing.
It was the beginning of our sad nightmare.
“I was confined to a dark room, where I sat on the bare floor for one full year to mourn my husband. No one provided food for my children and I was not allowed to go out.
“In the long run, three of my daughters were married out in their teenage so that the suffering could be reduced. My four sons could no longer complete their education; one after another they dropped out of school, and today, they have their own families and surviving from hand to mouth,” she narrated.
Sarah Nyiepine Wura, who lost her husband 36 years ago, also narrated how her in-laws were looking down on her and recruiting haters for her.
She said, “I have six children but two died because of hardship. I am left with two males and two females. My husband couldn’t build a house when he was a commissioner because his tenure was short-lived as a result of the Buhari coup in the 1980s. Each time I went home after his death in 1986, I slept in other people’s kitchens.
“In 2017 when I returned to build a house, I saw hell. My husband is from the Mbatiaav clan in Gboko Local Government Area. He didn’t have any asset when he died, except land. That’s what I am being persecuted for. After he died, I came back home, but my husband’s half brothers denied me access to the land.
“When the incident happened, I was asked to build my late husband’s grave. I bought the coffin and provided the food, all alone. As for inheriting me as wife, they couldn’t tell me that story because they are all old and not familiar with me. I, however, stood my ground and collected back the land.
“The challenge now is that they have distanced themselves from me; they hardly reply my greetings. They are bitter that my husband used my name and my first son’s name as his next of kin. They asked me to bring what my husband had, but the man died wretched.
“My husband didn’t come in as a commissioner in the early days of former Governor Aper Aku in office. It was shortly after he was appointed commissioner for arts and culture the coup sent that administration packing while the military took over. But these people pursuing me don’t want to believe that he died wretched. Even the house I stayed in Makurdi was built for me by my classmate. Nobody helped to take care of the children after his death. In fact, I traded in moi-moi and other things here to make ends meet.
“My first son was eight years then and in Bristow Secondary School in Gboko, while the second one died six months after my husband’s demise because of hardship. My first son later joined the army; and as we speak, I can’t tell where he is after he was taken to Sambisa in Borno State. We hardly communicate.”
Similarly, Rachael Ubeke, another widow of Igede extraction, lamented how all their properties were carted away by her husband’s family upon his demise.
“One of the things I went through, amongst many others, when my husband died, was the collection of his properties from me. They collected all the properties
and still asked me to disclose whatever was left, not minding how I was going to cater for the children.
“My husband died in 202I and I have four children. He was a mobile policeman who served in Nasarawa State at the time of his demise. We both came from Igede in Oju Local Government Area. My husband’s people (his elder sisters) came and packed his properties, leaving me stranded with the children.
“My children were small at that time and we spent some time in the village after the burial. I told them that we did not do that in my family, but my husband’s sister told me that in their own family that’s what they would do. I didn’t drag with them since they said it was a family trend. It is not the real description of Igede tradition but you know that family differs. In Igede land, when a woman’s husband dies, she is made to stay in the village for at least a month or more,” Mrs Ubeke narrated.
Mercy Aijetu Oglo, another widow of Idoma origin, said her late husband’s family collected all his properties when he died, and till date, they could not even ask after the welfare of the children he left behind.
She said her husband was a pastor in the Methodist Church along Ankpa road in Makurdi before he died in 2019. She added that she stayed for one week in the village after the burial, and was asked to stay in confinement for one year.
“His sister, however, pegged the confinement at six months but other relatives insisted on a one year mourning period. I stayed in the house for one year before resuming church activities. My husband had served at various branches of Methodist Church in Benue and Kaduna before he passed away. We are from Onyagede in Ohmini Local Government Area of Benue State.
“My case was even better because I know some women who also lost their husbands that same period or after then, who were beaten and all properties taken from them. I have six children but lost one, so they are remaining five.
If not for God, I nearly died last year because of what we went through,” she said.
In the same vein, Elizabeth Ackyor, a mother of four, who lost her husband on December 5, 2018, disclosed that after the burial she passed through many battles.
She said, “My in-laws asked me to bring his property documents and show them everything that was involved after I told them what we were doing before he died. My husband had registered a business before he died. It was when we needed to effect a change for the next of kin that the whole dust was raised.
“They said I wanted to change the next of kin so as to sell all the properties. It was not easy because they took me everywhere they could, telling people a lot of bad things about me and even involving my parents. I, however, stood my ground because my husband told me certain things before he died, which made me to be strong int.
“My father-in-law would scream at me to go and bring all the things because they belonged to his son. At a time, I almost surrendered because I could no longer bear the persecution. But in the heat of that pressure, on the night that I made up my mind to hand over the documents, my husband appeared in a dream to my pastor and warned that I should not do that or he would take away my two boys.
“So, I just had to be strong. Prayers were offered, and all of a sudden, they just became quiet about the matter. But I am not overlooking their silence as that could also mean another thing. They are no longer saying anything, but they don’t visit us or even call to find out how we are coping. I am the one that takes care of school fees, medical bills and feeding.
“My husband worked in the Nigerian Breweries and we are both Tiv from Buruku and Vandekiya local government areas respectively. Because of the way I went about the whole thing, they didn’t pressure me into being inherited as a wife by his relatives although it is their culture. If they did, I know my father-in-law would have supported it.
“I became very aggressive, which they never knew me for, so they couldn’t even try such a thing on me. Before my husband died, he warned me about that practice, saying I should not to agree to it. So I stood my ground. My husband died suddenly, without being previously ill.
“God has been helpful to my children and I since then through my family and church members.”
Buttressing the widow’s plight, Dr Abigail Gire, the public relations officer of the Women’s Wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state, said the development in this modern age was disheartening, hence the need for a law to prohibit such practices.
She noted that prominent among the experiences of widowhood in the state were bathing late husbands’ corpses and forcing the widows to drink the water as proof that they didn’t kill their them; widows to be married to their husbands’ brothers (widow inheritance), and taking over properties, leaving the women helpless.
“It is a Benue thing, so we are not mentioning tribes. There is also this practice that insists on widows crying in a particular way when mourning their husbands, as well as shaving of hairs. No woman should be forced to shave her hair; and if a man dies, his widow should be allowed to cry in her own way and not in a particular way,” she said.
On his part, the Benue State coordinator of the United Nations (UN) Women He-for-She Champions, Nathaniel Awuapila, said there should be a law against such practices, which infringe on the rights of women.
He also said the practices made the women look as if they participated in the death of their husbands and would not honour them.
Awuapila said, “Some of those practices may have appeared acceptable in the past for whatever reasons, but they are bad. There are many ways to show love. Women deserve to be respected. A woman should not be made to lose all she worked for with her husband because the man died.
“From the researches conducted, the practices differ according to ethnic groups in the state. There are ethnic groups where the practices are worse than others. Imagine a situation where a widow is made to drink the water used in bathing her late husband. It is terrible. What if the man died from infection? The implication is that the woman may become sick too.”
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that to tackle this menace, stakeholders are currently pushing for a widowhood protection bill to be passed into law by the Benue State House of Assembly, where offenders would be liable if they forcefully shaved a widow’s hair, compel her to sleep alone in a room or with the remains of her husband, force her to remarry or be ‘inherited’ by late husband’s relative, to compulsorily wail at intervals, remain in confinement in the name of mourning or refund dowry to the late husband’s family.
The draft provisions of the bill were last week validated by stakeholders, cutting across widows, civil society organisations, traditional rulers, security agencies, the media, among others, at a meeting organised by the Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (ESLF), in collaboration with the Office of the First Lady of Benue State and the Benue State Gender-based Violence Advocacy and Policy Implementation Committee.
The founder of the ESLF and wife of the Benue State governor, Dr Eunice Ortom, who is spearheading the move, said there was the need to stop these harmful practices.
Mrs Ortom also led stakeholders to the state House of Assembly, where she appealed for the passage of the bill.
She said there was the need for the stakeholders to leverage on their privileged positions to change the situation for good.
Responding, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Titus Uba, promised a quick passage of the bill, while the State High Court, Customary Court of Appeal, Ministry of Justice, all noted that the proposed bill was in line with the 1999 Constitution (as amended), saying the harmful practices required legal remedy.