Widowhood in Africa: The Human Rights question (Part One)

By Gozie C. Udemezue

“No widow should lose her rights because she lost her husband.”Fundamental human rights are those rights every country or nation recognizes and entrenches in their national constitutions. These rights are non-discriminatory, thus protective of both gender of female and male. These are fantastic definitions of human rights, but are they realistic? Are these rights achievable and attainable?According to Honorable Justice Kayode Eso in Chief (Mrs.) Olufunmilayo Ransome-kuti and ors v. Attorney-General of the federation (1985); fundamental human rights “are rights which stand above the ordinary laws of the land and which in fact are antecedent to the political society itself,”Attorney and Director for the Social Justice Center of Nigeria, Eze Onyekpere Esq, approached Human Right thus, “Human Rights as a social fact can be viewed as normative responses to expression of oppression and domination. They represent the minimum living standards for civilized humanity; to exist they are the morality of the depths rather than the morality of the heights. They are won through struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors.”Every country has national laws which encompass human rights provisions and most countries are member- states of the United Nations and thus are signatory to the various human rights instruments. Some countries even go a step further to ratify and domesticate the instruments thereby making them enforceable in their countries.At the regional level, there are human rights instruments and institutions, which guide the rights and responsibilities. There is the European Convention on Human Right in Europe with the European court of human right Strasbourg.In Africa, the Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights exists with the African Commission, on Human and Peoples Rights as the monitory body. Beyond African Charter is the 2003 protocol on Women’s Rights in Africa with specific provisions on rights of women and more particularly on widows’ rights.Different African countries have their national constitutions each with specific provisions on protection of human rights. In spite of all these provisions and Court decisions, widows remain endangered species across Africa. Widows, especially rural uneducated ones face all manner of human rights violations.The cases and incidents of violations cut across Africa.Personal working experience in communities with widows, religious bodies and other nongovernmental organizations has shown that widows’ experiences basically same pattern of maltreatment, violations and degrading conditions across the continent. Widows in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Togo, Ghana, and South Africa among other countries have the same kind of stories of maltreatments, disinheritance and illegal evictions to tell. The harmful widowhood practices are basically same with some practices in some of the communities worse than others.In Nigeria for instance, some States enacted specific laws to protect the rights of widows and shield them from those harmful traditional practices. Specifically, the eastern States of Enugu and Anambra States made the laws in 2001 & 2005 respectively, yet some of the widows are till date violated. The different marriage regimes in Africa have not helped the situation either.Widows who married under customary law face more severe treatments. Widows whose marriages are under the Marriage Act and registered face ill treatments but they have a springboard in the fact that the law protects them.For a widow without a male child, it is worse because her brothers-in-law on that basis disinherit her. There is a recent Supreme Court decision against such practices, yet this persists. A childless widow is often ordered out or advised to leave the family.In very few cases, the family may permit her to stay back and bear children in her husband’s name. Also some who are financially buoyant end up adopting children even amidst opposition from in-laws.In all, some of these maltreatments are often ascribed to culture. Are they really the true culture of the Africans? Or is it a good culture bastardized over time? For the Igbos of eastern Nigeria, does this barbarism really depict their culture or is it the bastardization of their culture? Are the laws and human rights instruments effective or are they mere rhetoric? How effective are the enforcement mechanisms? What is the role of the religious body, especially the church? Is widowhood a crime?The above questions stare us in the face because on a daily basis widows face constant maltreatment, deprivation and denial. With widows facing life-threatening violations, one wonders how the rights enshrined in all the laws and human rights instruments are protected. The civil and political rights and economic and social rights of the African widows are daily violated by those who are in positions to protect and promote them. Some of the widows do not even have the awareness that they have rights and so they accept every treatment and keep silent over it.The culture of silence is a major obstacle to seeking redress. Who will blow the whistle? Who will bell the cat? There are options to the widows, are they options they could resort to? Access to justice?In the words of Mrs. M. F. a widow from Anambra State whose brothers-in-law disinherited, “I do not trust the lawyers nor the courts, all my lawyer does is collect money from me claiming he is filing papers, the courts keep adjourning and while at it, my brothers-in-law are busy selling off my husband’s property, I am tired and frustrated.”This is a glimpse of what widows’ face. They do not want to file lawsuits because of the bottlenecks and some of them are even afraid of the repercussions of dragging their in-laws to court, some are simply afraid of the court itself. The brave and courageous ones do, the others hide in silence and fear bearing the maltreatment without speaking out or taking any step to seek redress.How long will the culture of silence continue?To be continued…

Gozie C. Udemezue is a Nigerian based Human rights Attorney and Widows’ Rights Activist. She wrote “Miracle on The Hudson,” about her own journey through widowhood. Find out more about Gozie here.