By Isaac Asabor
It is no more news that no sooner would the burial rites of a husband are completed in some parts of the country than she would ignominiously and unthankfully be forced out of her house with her children. Most women have undeservedly being meted with this punishment for committing no sin other than for becoming widow. The widow whose in-laws will send packing with her children, and accused of not contributing anything to the estate of her late husband can in this context be considered lucky as she was not accused of killing him.
To buttress the foregoing view, there was a widely publicized case of Regina Obodoeche, widow of the late Echezina Obodoeche of Irifite, south-east Nigeria, who was accused by her in-laws of complicity in the fatal motor accident that took her husband’s life, five months earlier. After the burial in the village, she was detained in solitude confinement in a hut.
The conditions were inhumane, she was forced to drink water used to wash her late husband’s body, as proof of her innocence, as well as being starved. Obodoeche’s in laws justified it as part of the three month traditional mourning period for widows.
Still humiliating enough, widows are forced into Levirate marriage. For the sake of clarity, Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, the term levirate is a derivative of the Latin word Levir, meaning “husband’s brother”.
Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage (i.e. marriage outside the clan) was forbidden. It has been known in many societies around the world.
Plagued by these age-long widowhood practices across the country, not few women have being driven away, and left to struggle with their innocent and sometimes, jobless children, to make a living away from the homes they jointly built with their respective late husbands. Some of them, ostensibly determined to be at peace with their in-laws, eschewed the filing of legal action in Court. To grasp how unscrupulous the situation has become, eye-catching headlines that come across in the following exactitude and similitude, “How to Respond When In-Laws Reject You”, “Customary law can pose problems for widows”, “Dilemma of a widow: Ejected from late husband’s house with 12yr old son”, “Pregnant Widow Chased from Her Land After Husband’s Death” and “Widow in rumble with family over late husband’s assets” are explanatory enough.
Besides, I have heard and read countless cases like those mentioned in the foregoing, particularly those that bordered on when a number of women as a pro bono lawyer focused on women’s rights in widowhood as applied in different ethnic groups across the country.
This situation is not unique to Nigeria. Though millions of Nigerian women rely on inheritances left by their late husbands for their lives and livelihood, particularly for the training of the children. As gathered by this writer, a widow customarily is not only deprived access to the home or rather house she jointly built with her late husband, she is equally restrained from having access to other assets like landed property(s), cars, portfolio investments; even when the husband specifically stated in the Form that it should be ceded to her if eventually he dies. Against the foregoing backdrop, there is no scintilla of hyperbole to say that violations of Property and Inheritance Rights of Widows in Nigeria has reached a worrisome stage.
Dispassionately ponder over the case of Nneka (Surname Withheld). When Nneka, 57, was widowed in 2016, it is not an exaggeration, in this context, to say that she lost more than her husband. Shortly after his death, her in-laws took virtually every assets she jointly acquired with her husband, including the ones she singularly acquired. Despite being a hardworking trader that regularly plied her trade from Agbor, in Delta State to Onitsha in Anambra State, in the course of her business, which made her to be rich. To this end, everything she bought with her monies were erroneously believed to be that of her late husband. So, the in-laws busily contested the ownership of such properties with her.
They also contested two undeveloped plots of land acquired by her husband before he died, irrespective of the fact that she has a son that is almost 20 years of age for her late husband. They further harassed, intimidated, and insulted her by surrounding and physically restraining her and telling her to leave her home, in an attempt to chase her away.
Ostensibly taken pity on her, neighbors advised her to contact a Foundation that provides legal aid to widows that could help her protect her inheritance. It was only after contacting the foundation that took the matter to court that she was able to obtain restraining orders against her in-laws that she was able to have a breathing space from her in-laws. But they continue to threaten her with all manners of accusations
Although Nigeria, like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, recognizes equal rights and non-discriminatory provisions in its Constitution, in practice and in some laws, women have not been accorded the same rights as men as when it comes to inheritance rights, however, women continue to experience discrimination in both law and practice.
As a Christian, I am appalled that barbaric widowhood practices are demonstrated in some Christian homes in Nigeria, particularly in homes where people are perfunctorily Christians by their first names or rather nominal Christians. In this context it is expedient to tell a story that shows that God is averse to discrimination against women in issues that have to do with their rights of inheritance.
For instance, Numbers 27:1–7 presents a scenario where women were not allowed to own land. In fact, in Israel a woman was treated like the property of her father, and was then transferred to her husband through a bridal payment. In their humility and wisdom, the five daughters of Zelophehad influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land.
The daughters of Zelophehad lived at the end of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. As time passed in the wilderness and the population changed, it was necessary to carry out a new census (Numbers 26:1–4). This was to help plan the social and economic structures of the new nation. God said that the land was to be divided among the tribes in proportion to the size of their families (Numbers 26:52–56). Each male head of household received an allotment.
Zelophehad had died without a son. When his daughters realized that their father’s name would be excluded when the land was given out because there was no male heir, they did an extraordinary thing that had not been heard of before. They asked Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chiefs and the whole assembly for their right to inherit their father’s property. In humility, Moses brought the matter to God. God responded that the plea of the daughters was just, and that they should be granted their father’s inheritance. With the foregoing divine judgement, it is laughable that some Christian’s families are divided in polemics arguing about women’s inheritance rights. With the judgement, there is no denying the fact that God is just and fair, and does not want women to be disadvantaged. He sees them as perfectly capable of owning and managing land.
Isaac Asabor is a Public Affairs Analyst.