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Property inheritance: Widows’ endless battle against oppression, search for equity

Though inevitable, the death of a husband is considered an irreparable loss. For many widows, what come after, are life-altering experiences that strip them of their dignity and right to survival, thus leading to a life of deprivation and descent into poverty. In this report, TESSY IGOMU writes on how property disinheritance and inhuman acts emboldened by tradition, create inequality gaps and distort the lives of widows in states such as Plateau, Niger, Anambra, Imo and Lagos

Widowhood sackcloth

Joy Roland has been mired in grief since the death of her husband, James, early this year. Draped in black, she stared into space with a forlorn look. Her husband’s demise is shrouded in mystery and has left the 38-year-old distraught.

Roland has been variously blamed for outliving her husband and made to wear the toga of one whose spouse breathed his last in a supposedly ‘undignified’ manner – during sexual intercourse.

Roland sobbed profusely as she pieced together the bits and pieces that made up the details of her husband’s death. “I have yet to recover from the death of my husband,” she mumbled.

Recalling how a blissful, romantic night suddenly took a tragic twist on March 20, 2022, the native of Bauchi State said she watched helplessly as life ebbed out of her husband in their matrimonial bed.

Although the couple got married according to customs in the Mangu Local Government Area of Plateau State in December 2021, they had been intimate for four years before wedlock, but had no child.

The absence of an offspring, Roland revealed, made her husband’s death an unbearable tragedy.

“It’s not an experience any woman should go through. The fact that I had no child made the pain unbearable,” she cried.

Reminiscing on the love they shared as a couple, Joy revealed that she was compelled to be a full time housewife by her husband, adding that he went the extra mile to make her happy.

Stripped of all

Sadly, the absence of a child was used as a tool against the widow as she was denied access to her husband’s property by her in-laws.

Her trauma worsened as her in-laws seized her husband’s property and shared them, leaving nothing to her. “This took place barely two weeks after his burial. The red soil on his grave was still fresh,” she said.

The widow recalled that when James’ sister came to visit her in Abuja, she saw it as a kind gesture meant to give her emotional support, only to realise later that there was more to the visit.

She said, “After the burial, my in-laws told me that they will come to Abuja to pack my husband’s property. I pleaded with them to wait till the end of the year, but they refused. His sister came and days later, other relatives joined her and they packed everything to the village. They left only my clothes.”

They told her that her husband’s property would be returned to her after a year.

However, for someone who had seen those belongings already in use by her in-laws, she nurses little hope of reclaiming them. Notwithstanding, she said she would wait patiently for the year to end to see if they would make good their promise.

Husband’s colleagues to the rescue

Through her predicament, Roland got a lifeline from her late husband’s colleagues, who gave her N700, 000, to start a business.

But while she was fortunate to get a lifeline, other widows have not been so lucky, and have desolately waded through life’s vicissitudes alone.

Widowhood in Nigeria

Widowhood, for a Nigerian woman, signals the commencement of troubles that include impoverishment, banishment into indignity and denial of access to her late husband’s inheritance.

Since 2011, the United Nations set aside every June 23, to draw attention to the plight, voices and experiences of widows globally and to galvanise support for them.

According to the UN Women, for many women around the world, the devastating loss of a partner is magnified by a long-term fight for their basic rights and dignity. The body noted that there are over 258 million widows globally that have “historically been left unseen, unsupported, and unmeasured in our societies.”

It pointed out that as widows navigate their experiences of grief, loss, or trauma, they are likely to be faced with economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatisation and harmful traditional practices.

The UN Women noted that in many countries, widows do not have equal inheritance rights, and may be stripped of their land, evicted from their homes, or even separated from their children.

“They may be denied access to inheritance, bank accounts, and credit, which can have significant financial impacts for them, their children, and future generations,” the body added.

In Nigeria, many widows are subjected to dehumanising practices with severe consequences. Some are forcibly passed on or inherited by their late husband’s relatives, thus, denied rights to bodily autonomy and dignity in life after loss.

In a report published in the 2015 International journal of Humanities and Social Science by a senior lecturer at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akoko, Ondo State, Dr. Akinbi Olukayode, in-laws and the community subject widows to physical and emotional abuses like having their hair shaved with razors.

Other ill-treatments, he noted, include wearing of black or white clothes, sleeping on the floor or mat, not bathing for a specific period of time, being made to sleep with or swear with the husband’s corpse, as well as prolonged seclusion.

Disinheritance fuelling poverty

According to the United Nations fact sheet, nearly one in 10 of the over 258 million widows globally, live in extreme poverty. Also, in 2019, the International Women Society pegged the number of widows in Nigeria at 15 million with emphasis placed on the fact that they struggle daily to survive.

Infographics spotlights inequality between men and women 
Infographics spotlights inequality between men and women. Source: UN Women

Olukayode cited earlier in his journal that there is growing evidence in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria, that customary denial of property inheritance fuels poverty among widows.

Inheritance denial, PUNCH Investigations gathered, is traceable to the intricacies of the customary laws, which forbids the transfer of assets to widows.

The former President of the Customary Court of Appeal, the late Justice Moses Bello, in a 2017 paper, also acknowledged that widows have no place in their husband’s inheritance, going by the practice in different cultures.

He said that the Court of Appeal attempted a departure from the practice when it held that a widow is entitled to certain rights in the husband’s property even when she is childless.

The late Justice Bello, concluded that the practice of denying widows inheritances was at variance with contemporary realities.

He urged the judiciary to nullify some of these discriminatory practices. However, years after the late jurist’s appeal, many widows are still being left desolate, especially in states such as Plateau, Niger, Anambra, Imo and Lagos.

Grimmer picture

A research published by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies painted a grimmer picture.

It noted that in Ogidi, a community in the Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State, the mourning period usually lasts for a year, during which a widow is restricted to the house and made to sit on the bare floor for four weeks with clean-shaven head.

“She is not allowed to talk, laugh, shake hands or greet people, bake or cook. Her attire is called ‘Ogodo-upa’, that is, ‘mud cloth.’ After seven weeks, she removes the ‘mud cloths’ and wears ‘the ikpim,’ a pitch black mourning dress for the rest of the year,” the research stated.

The NIALS study revealed that the cultural practice is worse in Ezira and Nawfija in the Orumba South Local Government Area of Anambra state, where a widow is allegedly put in a ‘cage.’

It also noted that in Rivers State, a widow is often compelled to prove that she is not complicit in her husband’s death.

“To do this, various rites have to be conducted. These include bathing the anus of the corpse and giving the water to the widow to drink, as practised by the Emohua people,” the report stated.

However, the NIALS research concluded that ill-treatment of widows transcends the southern part of the country, adding that in Kano, a northwestern state, widows observe the ‘Takaba,’ a four-month and 10 days mourning period, in seclusion.

Plateau’s cases of widow disinheritance

In December 2020, The Deputy Director, Public Affairs of the National Human Rights Commission in Plateau State, Veronica Abe, said the commission and its partners recorded 664 cases of gender-based violence in the state in 2020.

She said out of this figure, there were 38 disinheritance cases and 14, harmful widow practices.

Abe noted that the figures may be conservative as many gender-based violence are not reported due to fear of stigmatisation, reprisals and lack of confidence in the justice system.

This fear was vividly captured by our correspondent while speaking with widows from this state, as they refused to have their pictures taken and were practically coerced to share their experiences. It took the intervention of elderly natives before they could agree to have an audio interview with our correspondent.

Abandoned with a child

Of the lot is Justina John from the Pankshin LGA, who got married in February, 2000, according to customary law to a man from the Langtang North LGA.

He, however, died in 2005, following complications from a chronic kidney infection. Though they had two children, one died after birth. At her husband’s demise, John was left with the task of raising their child alone.

The 42-year-old alleged that her in-laws seized her husband’s property.  She said while alive, her husband’s relatives were a thorn in her flesh, but they bared their fangs two weeks after his death.

“They broke into my home and took all valuables. They took advantage of the fact that I was staying in my parent’s house after the burial to pack all our property. They left nothing for me. I handed the matter over to God and focused on taking care of her only child, who is now 21. Seeing her through school was hard. In 2010, I worked as a house girl to fend for her. But I knew life could have been better,” said John.

Childless, labelled a witch

Although she looked feeble due to old age, Grace Gyamn, another Jos resident, recalled vividly how she was demonised by her in-laws following the death of her spouse, Joseph.

The elderly woman claimed she was labelled a witch, treated like an outcast and dispossessed of her husband’s only farmland because she had no child with her late husband.

Same in Anambra, Imo

Terrifying experiences of widows in various Igbo communities also abound.

Aside from being pushed into abject poverty as a result of being disinherited, some suffer from unnamed ailments, allegedly inflicted on them for defying certain cultural practices attached to their husband’s rite of passage.

Cecilia Okoye, from Nsugbe in the Anambra East LGA of Anambra state, shared her ugly experience when her husband, Louis, passed on in 2002.

Despite having seven children for him; five girls and two boys, she was denied access to his property.

Cecilia Okoye, a widow who was stripped of her husband's properties in Anambra, has moved on with her life
Cecilia Okoye, a widow who was stripped of her husband’s properties in Anambra, has moved on with her life

“The Umuada (daughters in the family) accused me of committing several atrocities, one of which was not conforming to their tradition because of Christianity.

My husband was sick before his death. When he passed on, I sent for his kinsmen, but they didn’t show up. I had to bathe and dress him for burial, after which I called some young men to dig a grave in front of the house.

“His kinsmen came and said the house didn’t belong to him and insisted that he must be buried in an obscure part of the compound. The next day, the Umuada came to shave my hair, but I refused because in the early hours of the morning, my daughter had a dream where I became mad after having my hair shaved.

“The women became angry and left, after which they imposed sanctions on me. The house was given to a young man whom they claimed was my late brother-in-law’s son. I returned to Lagos and became ill, and was told it was the fallout of my confrontation with the women, but God healed me.”

Cecilia said she struggled to raise her children, adding that years after, her first son built a house in the village.

Another widow, Stella Arinze from Akokwa, Imo State, who lost her husband in a road accident was accused of having a hand in his death. She was left with his decomposing corpse for three days and forced to bathe and dress him up for burial.

While grappling with her loss, she said her in-laws shared his property, leaving her empty-handed. Now a petty trader, Arinze lives with her three children in Owerri and struggles daily to put food on the table.

The situation in Niger State

Taiwo Ogunseyi, a Yoruba woman married to a man from Niger State, still lives in shock years after her brother-in-law angrily stormed their house in Minna and took her late husband’s car away.

“It was a few days after my husband’s burial. He claimed the car and a television were to make up for the money he spent during the burial,” she said with indignation.

Ogunseyi recalled that the man was unmoved by her children’s cries and neighbours’ pleas. “He had his eyes on my husband’s farmland, but because he was not allowed to have it, he came for those ones. Produce from the land is what has been sustaining me and my children. The car would have really helped if we still had it,” she said.

A widow’s fight to retain property

Some widows, however, choose to fight for their rights. Comfort Musa fits into this category. Rather than give in to her brother-in-law’s demand that she hands over a piece of land she jointly owned with her late husband, the native of Tunga area of Niger State took the matter to court.

After several adjournments, Comfort won the case.

She said, “When I told him the land was jointly owned. He insisted on knowing how much I contributed, but I refused to tell him. I went to the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, an organisation for widows, for help.

They gave me a lawyer that filed my case in court. I won and my brother-in-law was warned not to ever disturb me again.”

Musa, however, revealed that for safety reasons, she sold the land and relocated with her children to the outskirts of Minna.

Practice common among Christians

Speaking on the prevalence of ill-treatment of widows in Niger State, the Coordinator, Widows Organisation International, Dame Zegi, noted that the practice of denying a widow right to property inheritance was common among the Christians in the state.

She said, “For the Christians, when a man dies and it is suggested that his property be shared in accordance with the Christian doctrine, family members usually disagree. They prefer to follow tradition, which usually cheats the widow. If mourning and burial are carried out in a Christian way, why not share property in a Christian way?”

Zegi, a human rights activist
Zegi, a human rights activist and coordinator of a widows association in Niger has spearheaded advocacy against ill-treatment of widows

Zegi added that Islamic provisions determine what a widow inherits, stressing that, “only greedy relatives and imams” would flout the provisions on inheritance rights. It’s not in all cases that widows suffer. It usually happens when greedy Islamic clerics take sides, especially in a polygamous setting by tilting towards a widow with more male children because her share would be more,” she said.

Rooted in family intricacies

Nigeria has about 500 ethnic nationalities, each with its distinctive native laws and customs that regulate inheritance and property succession.

The violation of women’s right to inheritance mostly begins in the family, which is reflective of the larger society.

For instance, in Igboland, the girl-child has no right of inheritance under customary law. The saying, ‘Nwanyi bu ama onye ozo’ (a girl child belongs to another family), was used to justify the practice of not having a typical Igbo father bequeath estate to his female child.

What is practised is primogeniture – succession by the first male child, who is often referred to as the Okpala or Diokpala.

In the absence of a male child, access to such land is denied and taken over by the deceased’s male siblings.

However, a widow or daughter can ask for clarification on boundaries, as the only right bequeathed to them is to cultivate on the land.

This is in variance with the Yoruba customary law of inheritance and succession which stipulates that only the deceased’s children (both male and female) have right to equal inheritance.

However, the eldest male child, also referred to as Dawodu, automatically takes control of his late father’s estate.

Speaking on the Igbo customs, a traditional ruler in Lagos, Eze John Nwosu, said that based on Igbo tradition, what gives a widow access to her late husband’s property is the presence of a male child.

An Igbo traditional ruler, John Nwosu,
An Igbo traditional ruler, John Nwosu, calls for a stop to ill-treatment of widows

He said, “A wife that doesn’t have a male child is seen as not having any child yet and is regarded as a non-member of the family. She will not inherit anything.

Customarily, property belongs to the children, and as such, a mother can’t be isolated from her husband’s property, but that is if the man changed the titles on the property to that of his children.”

The traditional ruler explained that if a man dies and his children are still young, to avoid having another man take over the property, if the woman remarries, in-laws usually hold the property in trust until the children come of age. But the case is different if the property is jointly owned by the couple.”

He noted that only a greedy family will deny a widow with a male child the right to her husband’s inheritance.

Nwosu said, “The only way in-laws can come in is if the child is still small. The process of taking charge must be documented and a proper handing over, done, once the child is old enough,”

He, however, called for a stop to practices that prevent widows from becoming self-sufficient.

What the law says

A report published by the Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada, noted that Nigerian law provides for a widow of a civil marriage to be entitled to the couple’s property.

It, however, stated that the Nigerian reality is different, as this right will often be ignored, or challenged by in-laws.

“The law on civil marriages is modelled on British law and it is clear from this law that inheritance is to be shared by the widow and the children. Husband’s family will often demand a hearing before a traditional court, a regular court, or both. Despite the clarity of the marriage laws, the rights of the widow are often not upheld in regular courts and “almost never” in traditional courts.

“In Nigeria, there are three recognised inheritance laws. According to statutory law, a wife inherits half of the whole estate if there are no children, while under Islamic law the widow will get only one-quarter of her husband’s estate, but customary law says that a wife can’t inherit but can stay in her husband’s family by agreeing to be inherited by one of his kinsmen. Courts have expressed the view that there is nothing wrong with the custom (Binns Mar. 1998).

“The law provides that when a marriage takes place under statutory (civil law), the legal courts have precedence over the traditional courts. However, despite this, the deceased’s family will often take their claims to traditional courts.”

Practice voided by the 1999 Constitution

The UN Human Rights Resolution (2005) specified that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.

It further stated, “Women’s equal ownership, access to and control over land, and the equal right to own property and to adequate housing, contribute to the full realisation of human rights.”

Chapter 4, Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution confers the fundamental right to freedom from discrimination on Nigerians.

A lawyer, Gloria Ballason, explained that this section also extends to inheritance, adding that any custom or law that contradicts the constitution is null and void.

Gloria Ballason advocates for enlightenment
Gloria Ballason advocates for enlightenment

She said, “The constitution itself has provided for that. Efforts should be geared towards enlightenment, for people to understand that females are fully human as male children.

“As regards culture that disinherits widows, once it discriminates against a person because of where he or she comes from, origin, ethnic group or sex, section 42 of the constitution will override. People need to report these practices so that the law will not have an opportunity to reverse them.”

Landmark pronouncement

In 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a female child to inherit the property of her father in a unanimous decision.

The apex court, by the judgment, voided the age-long Igbo tradition and customary law, which forbade a female child from inheriting her father’s estate on the grounds that it was discriminatory and conflicted with Section 42(1) (a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.

Two years after the ruling, Rivers State became the first and only state in Nigeria to formally give strength to the judgment.

On Thursday, September 15, 2022, Governor Nyesom Wike, officially ended the practice of denying women inheritance by signing into law the ‘Rivers State Prohibition of the Curtailment of Women’s Right to Share in Family Property Law No. 2 of 2022.’

Meanwhile, a paper published in the European Journal of Social Sciences in June, 2021, titled, ‘Succession to, and inheritance of property under Nigerian Laws: A Comparative Analysis,’ noted that the customary practices which dispossess a daughter of her father’s property or from inheriting her husband’s possessions are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and needs to be abolished.

The author backed the judgement, adding, “The Supreme Court’s pronouncement laid a foundation for the future statutory regulation of all Nigerian Customs particularly those that are still repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience in the 21st century; but who will bell the cat?”

Advocacy against widows’ ill-treatment

Of great mention among calls and advocacy seeking an end to repugnant practices against widows is a bill sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives, Adejoro Adeogun.

The bill to amend the Violence against Persons Act 2015 to Prohibit Discrimination against Widows and all Forms of Repressive and Degrading Widowhood Practices (HB 1711) passed it second reading in the House of Representatives on February17, 2022.

Adeogun sponsors bill seeking an end to discrimination against widows
Adeogun sponsors bill seeking an end to discrimination against widows

It sought to amend four sections of the principal Act and strengthen provisions that protect widows from harmful practices meted out to them by virtue of custom, traditions or cultural beliefs, which violate their rights.

It also reinforces the rights of widows in conformity with international conventions to which Nigeria is a signatory.

The bill, seeking to introduce a new section 15 of the Principal Act, and criminalise the subjection of a widow to “harmful widowhood practices,” highlighted stiffer penalties for offenders in comparison to what is contained in the extant law.

It specified imprisonment term of two years, or a fine of N100,000 or both, to an imprisonment term of seven years without any option of fine.

It recommended remedies for victims based on the court’s determination. The bill in addition to several rights specified by the constitution and other international instruments, to which Nigeria is a signatory, specifically provides that “a widow shall have the right to continue to live in her matrimonial home and where she remarries, retain the home if it belongs to or is inherited by her. She also has the right to inherit from a property jointly owned by her deceased husband and in-laws, enter a marriage of her choice, own and administer property/enter into a contract/access credit without being accountable to her in-laws, and be vested with guardianship of her child(ren).”

The bill stipulates May 23, every year as the National Day for the Prohibition of Discrimination against Widows, Women and Girls and expands the powers of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and other Related Matters, as the agency in charge of administering its provisions.

Shedding light on the bill, the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre noted that, in addition to making rules and regulations to guide implementation of the provisions of the Act, the bill specifically empowers NAPTIP to promote and provide for the protection, maintenance and welfare of abandoned and destitute widows and their dependent children, and maintain a register of widows.

‘Will writing is important’

A lawyer, Akpama Ekwe, noted that a will is important and is a sure way for a husband to protect his wife’s right to property inheritance, as it helps to secure the children’s future and put paid to unnecessary bickering.

“Men should embrace the practice of writing will. A husband should understand that whatever he has is possible due to his wife’s support, and it won’t be good to have another person inherit them.

“It is important to protect your partner through will, but if you are not ready for that, it is advisable to buy property in the name of your wife or children, so that when you are not there, they can have access to it. Some men now buy property jointly,” said Ekwe.

He said signing a prenuptial agreement might not be actually important, but could be an option when a woman feels that her husband might not want her to inherit his property. Ekwe added that when it comes to buying property in the name of a wife, children, or jointly, the title document must clearly indicate the owner.

Legal intervention for disinherited women

The lawyer advocated legal provisions to protect women’s rights, advising that in the absence of a will, a widow who has been disinherited should pursue her case in court.

“The court will always recognise the fact that a woman needs protection as the wife. The court would not just close its eyes and declare that the property should go to the man’s relations when the wife is there, except if the case is taken to a customary court where the law would be implemented based on its provision.

“When a widow insists that she got married under the English law and that customary law can’t determine her right to inheritance, the English law will protect her. It is advisable for women to insist on getting married under English law. Once the bride price is paid, the next thing should be court marriage and a marriage certificate, issued,” said Ekwe.

This report was facilitated by the Africa Centre for Development Journalism (ACDJ) as part of its Inequality Reporting Fellowship supported by the MacArthur Foundation through the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism. 

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