Global Resources

The alienation of Nigerian women in widowhood

Author: N. N. Iheanacho
Publication Date: Oct 2015

This ethnographic study describes the plight of many women in widowhood in Nigeria, particularly in rural areas and more traditional communities such as those found in Etche, in the Niger Delta region. The cause of the women’s plight are harmful cultural practices that are ritualistically applied in the event of a husband’s death, and which see widows alienated from their communities and families, and from themselves as autonomous, empowered individuals. This alienation runs deep in many communities, and manifests in a variety of ways. Widows are forced to lie with the corpse in state, relinquish possessions to the husband’s family, restrict their movement and agency in decisions concerning them. Additionally, the widows are often labelled as dirty, or subject to accusations they cannot contend for fear of further alienation.

The paper examines the traditional practices in Etche, and places them in the context of a developing world wherein education is making them ever more anachronistic. This growing disconnect serves to increase the harm inflicted on people that do not accept such outdated modes of dealing with death. Despite this, it is important to note that many women themselves are fundamental in perpetuating the customs, be it through a duty to tradition, or even the opportunity for personal gain and the new found freedom to act upon feelings of jealousy, rejection, or personal disliking.

The complex nature of attitudes towards these rituals and practices, including the sometimes deep-rooted feeling that they are important and necessary components of these communities heritage, means that a head-on approach toward eradicating them may be ineffective, or even counter-productive. Instead, the author advocates for attitudinal change through mass education programmes that are free, compulsory, and accessible in rural areas. Other ideas include: the organisation of widows with the aim of instituting an endowment fund to alleviate widow's plight, and allow them access to legal services; the inclusion of the Church, who are urged to protect the rights of all of their flock; and a campaign to highlight and enlighten people as to the negative impacts of such practices.