Harmful Widowhood Practices in my Community and Region in Nigeria

Posted June 24, 2019 from Nigeria

I already posted a story on my organisations engagement with Widows in March 8 2019 on the International Womens Day titled Engagement with Widows in Avu Community.

“She is a daughter, a sister and a mother but we forget easily that she is human because she is a widow”. That she lost her husband does not make her less a human.

Widowhood practices have never been palatable. Widows in the past and even now in some communities are still passing through hell at the loss of their spouse. Usually when a woman loses her husband, she is expected to cry out so loud that everyone in the community will hear and rush down to their house. Failing to do so, it will be counted against her as having aided or have a hand in her husband’s death.

In the time of old, Immediately a women loses her husband, she is to seat at a particular place and not move around even to use the convenient was not allowed as bowls are kept for them in the same room where they are. They are not allowed outside or mix up with other people until the burial of the husband. Some are made to sit on broken shells of clay pots, snails or on bare floor. They are mostly ostracised from the usual cycle of people. They will neither take a bath nor change clothes they were wearing as at the time their husband died. They are not allowed to go to the market, stream or any social gathering. Nobody will answer their greetings if they make a mistake of being the first person to greet anybody early in the morning. They were seen and treated as outcast and unclean. She is made to eat from a broken calabash.

On the eve of the burial, they are made to sleep with their husband’s corpse in the same room and made to drink the water used to bath the corpse as an oath to prove their innocence of not having a hand in their husband’s death even when it is obvious that the man died from protracted illness. In some communities the widow is made to spend 3 nights in an evil forest in order to exonerate herself.

The harmful and mistreatment continues after the burial of the husband. The woman is shaved of all hairs in her body completely with broken bottle or any other sharp object. They are made to wear full black dress as a sign of mourning and her movement will still be restricted.

The scramble and partitioning of her husband’s property will start. In extreme cases she is sent away from her husband’s house especially if she did not have a male child for her husband. No matter how little her husband had, it will be taken over by the man’s family (brothers) and banned from using any of her husband’s property. Nobody cares how she will take care of her children except for the woman’s immediate family(father, mother and siblings). If the woman has grown up children especially male, she will be somehow protected as some of her husband’s properties will be inherited by her son(s). Some brothers / male relatives go to the extent of struggling among themselves who will remarry the widow at the end of her mourning period. That is how bad it could get. Life becomes most unbearable if the woman refuses to be taken over by any of her husband’s relative. The mothers-in-law do not also show mercy except for very few that are really humane.

In the middle of all these treatments are women known as Umuada or Umuokpu who monitor to make sure that she abides by those traditions and culture.

In recent times, with all the advocacies being carried out by Religious organisations, Civil Society Organisations and Non-governmental organisations, some communities have amended some of these traditions to be a little liberal. Some families have also become lenient and amended their show of disdain and disinheritance though it is not yet uhuru.

Despite the constant enlightenment, most men have refused to leave a will behind in other to protect their wives and children from the vultures called family and relatives. Some have even refused to tell their wives how small or large their assets are. Most of them still use their siblings and mothers as next of kin in their work places and it has continued to be an issue of dispute in family cycles and concern for employers. Some men feel that preparing a will means they are calling or inviting death. Couples are advised by religious organisations to make sure they get married in the state wedding registry so that the wives and children will be protected by the laws of the state when the eventuality happens. These religious organisations have stepped up a little by assisting the couples file documentations alongside the religious body’s documentation.  

Some of the sever treatments may have been dropped but widows still have to wear black or white to show their mourning periods, shave all hairs; most times, the oath taking is still part of the ceremony but no longer with bath water from the huband’s corpse. Most women indulge in the oat taken to exonerate themselves of any guilt.

The deprivation, starvation and mistreatment may no longer be very open but underneath all the gliz is the dirt of greed and corruption especially if the deceased was a man of means which has continued to be the worst motivation of marginalisation and mistreatment of widows.

Most states in Nigeria have signed into law the discriminatory and harmful practices of widows into law but most women do not know about their protective laws. These laws end up in the house of assembly, government agencies and courts without being taken down to the local communities where these practices are prevalent and needed most. Women and children of deceased men continue to be subjected and treated as outcast. Sisters of the decease man support most of these treatments forgetting that it could be their turn tomorrow.

In some fora where I have had opportunity to speak about these mistreatment, I have maintained that women drive these cultures and we can also come together to advocate to put an end to widowhood practices completely. On close investigations, I found out that some women use the avenue to settle scores. Some will tell you outright that the same treatment was meted out to them therefore every widow must go through it. When asked how they will feel it is their daughters or sisters, they will simply tell you it will not be their portion.

It’s disheartening to know that these women who have been disinherited in their husband’s house do not also have an inheritance in their father’s house except recently some enlightened men and fathers include their daughters in their wills. But the percentage of these men and fathers are very minimal.

The recent engagement I had with some widows has their stories of disinheritance of their husband’s properties especially the landed properties and the maltreatment from the husband’s relatives. The husband relatives still expects them to take permission from them before their children can go to school, go in search of work or to learn a trade.

In most recent interactions they complained that the lands they leased for farming have been invaded by Herdsmen and their cassava eating up and destroyed by cattles. For fear of being killed, they cannot challenge the herdsmen.

My organisation Our Lady of Perpetual Help Initiative in collaboration with Handmaid Skill Acquisition Initiative had planned a campaign walk to create raise awareness on the inhuman treatment of widows and as well as plan for an economic empowerment for some of them in Rivers & Imo states.





This story was submitted in response to International Widows' Day.

Comments 11

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Jun 25, 2019
Jun 25, 2019

Thanks for the elaborative verse of the challenges widow's faced in your country. I relate that its same everywhere especially in our continent. We have to all put in an effort to eradicate this cancer as a widowhood rite. Regards

Jill Langhus
Jun 25, 2019
Jun 25, 2019

Hi Ota,

I'm so glad that you're helping to end these harmful practices for widows, and also to educate them about what rights they do have. Please continue to update us on your progress, and I wish you much luck on your endeavors.


Roselyn Achamber
Jul 02, 2019
Jul 02, 2019

What a predicament for these poor widows.
Welldone OTAHELP for the good work you are doing. Keep it up.

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Jul 04, 2019
Jul 04, 2019

Hello, Otahelp,

What a shocking culture that is! A widow’s cry could be very loud during her husband’s last breath not just because he died, but because of the inhumane abuse that she’d experienced after. How cruel! How did this kind of treatment on widows began?

Thank you for sharing this with us and for doing a campaign walk for awareness! May the plight of widows in Nigeria be for the better.

I wonder what happens to men when their wives die first? How different was/is the treatment compared to a widow?

Anita Shrestha
Oct 09, 2019
Oct 09, 2019

Thank you for sharing

Dr Jackie
Nov 02, 2019
Nov 02, 2019

Hi Sister Ota,
Thank you for sharing this. When my aunt lost her husband, she was almost buried alive with him. She had to raise her only son all by herself as all of her husband's assets were seized from her. It is unfortunate that these despicable practices have not been addressed by most organizations. I am glad you are taking up this battle to fight for our women. Please keep doing what you are doing.

Sister Zeph
Nov 02, 2019
Nov 02, 2019

I do not know what to say my dear, I have no words to speak by reading all this what is happening to women in our world. thank you for raising your voice and your work to help those widows whose lives are worse than hell

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Nov 03, 2019
Nov 03, 2019

Hi Ota,
Thank you so much for your post and for the good work that you are doing with the widows. Looking forward to many more of your stories.
Have a lovely day.

Nov 06, 2019
Nov 06, 2019

Hi Ota, this is true thank you for taking note and taking a stand for this group of women in the society. Keep it up its a great job.

Nov 07, 2019
Nov 07, 2019

Hello dear
Thanks for the great job you are doing! We hope to see other women in different communities with this practice stand up for the widows. Our voices must be heard.

Paulina Nayra
Jul 18
Jul 18

Dear Otahelp,
I can't believe there are practices like that which are so abusive of widows. I fervently hope that the widows of today and tomorrow will not anymore experience them. And it will take a lot of education and legislative advocacy to stop those harmful practices. I wish you good luck and a lot of support on your work.
Huggs from the Philippines.