Widowhood Practice In Nigeria

Project and Seminar Material for Law

Widowhood Practice In Nigeria

Chapter One


Discrimination against women is defined by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979 (referred to as the 1979 Convention) as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”1 Discrimination then is symptomatic of any situation where patterns of structural inequality are maintained by rules, norms and procedures which dictate a subordinate role for women in all spheres of society.

The movements calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against women emphasize the need for a radical re-definition of the process and content of economic, social and political development and stress the need for a holistic orientation which acknowledges the vital role of women in development and engineers their integration into development planning and process as equal partners with men. For this purpose, it is argued that legal and substantive protection at the domestic, regional and international levels must be coordinated for more meaningful enhancement of both the status and situation of women.

Discrimination against women in particular societies takes different forms, and thus requires the utilization of differential strategies in different historical epochs and societies.

Discrimination against women will continue to be a problem until all the factors responsible for its existence, maintenance and institutionalization are understood and eradicated.

Widowhood has also been defined as the state of mourning the loss of one’s husband or wife through death3. The stress of this phenomenon is as real as those of loneliness and divorce. Widowhood is thus seen as a life event with wide range of consequences. For instance, widowhood is known to be responsible for the poor health status of widows and widowers, with minimal long-term consequences and is also associated with intense grief and angry expressions, especially among more widows than the divorced (when) compared.4 This is possibly because of deprivation following loss of spousal intimacy through death. It can thus be concluded that widowhood by implication is a stressful life event demanding practicable support systems.

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In many countries, while there is ad-hoc reform of laws and creation of interventions for the advancement of women and obnoxious widowhood practices, there does not seem to be a conscious application of CEDAW at the domestic level. CEDAW is not the basis of law or policy reform. There is also a lack of clarity on CEDAW as a human rights instrument. Nigeria has domesticated CEDAW principles but they are not directly applicable in the courts. There is a lack of a comprehensive and holistic plan to implement CEDAW and whatever reform is put in place suffers from weak implementation due to lack of monitoring, inadequacy of resource allocation, lack of capability and weaknesses of the institutions concerned. Hence widowhood practices therefore persist. Obligations must be fulfilled evenly for all including minorities, overseas territories and even where there is devolution of powers. Hence there is a need for a unified strategy and policy for implementation of all provisions of CEDAW. Finally state obligation also includes ensuring a gender dimension in the development assistance that a State Party may render.139

The latent consequence of the forgoing is that society places limit on the extent to which the women can aspire. Concomitantly, the women do not think they are being ‘oppressed’ by social structure. It seems to them that whatever roles they perform in the society have been naturally ordained. Indeed it is ironical to
139 Ibid.

note that those who are perpetuating the practice of these traditional harmful practices to widows are the victims themselves. The small volume of their economic activities further makes them (women) totally dependent on their husbands for all their needs. This also has an effect on the family especially when the husband dies and the widow does not have sufficient money with which to take care of the family.

Nations are passing laws to protect the rights of women. Imo and Enugu States have signed into law the abrogation of all widowhood practices in the states. But laws alone cannot change hearts, unless cultural and social values change, legislation against widowhood practices will not work where the roots of injustice and prejudice are in existence.140

It can be surmised that discriminatory widowhood practices exist in many African countries and other parts of the developing world, and continue because they have never been seriously addressed and challenged. Yet these issues must be addressed on a global level as part of the overall development effort, since sustainable development cannot take place within a discriminatory setting. To achieve such changes, the strong and organized support of world bodies committed to opposing oppression is necessary.141

A particular feature in the Nigerian legal system is the attitude of the people. Most disputes involving family law are regarded as private. When contested in public, such disputes are usually taken outside the formal court system, and decided at the village or local administrative level. At such level, precedence is given to the customary law of the people. However, recent decisions have shown the progressive changes in the higher courts in evoking the principles of natural justice. There are many reasons why family issues are taken before the village administration in preference to the formal courts. These include:

  1. High cost of filing papers;
  2. Bureaucracy in the formal courts;
  3. High legal fees for counsel; and
  4. Long and complex procedure of formal courts.

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