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Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 424-486

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Post-Colonialism, Gender, Customary Injustice:
Widows in African Societies

Uche U. Ewelukwa 1

I. Introduction 425
II. The Experiences of Widows in Nigeria 433
A. Disinheritance and Deprivation of Property 434
B. Widowhood Burial and Mourning Rituals 437 [End Page 424]
C. Choices Constraints and Agency 440
D. Rationales for Africa's Widowhood Practices 442
III. The Legal Context of Widow's Rights in Nigeria 446
A. Legal Rights Privileges and Disabilities of Widows 451
IV. Taking on the Judiciary: Widows and Their Battle for Justice 458
A. Judicial Interpretation on the Rights and Entitlements of Widows 462
B. Administration of an Estate: The Widow's Lot 465
V. Conceptualizing Change Deconstructing Myths:
The Politics of Reform

A. The Politics of Reform 470
B. The Indispensable Enemy: The Role of
Traditional Rulers in Law Reforms 472
C. Conceptualizing Change 474
D. Legal Reform 476
VI. Conclusion 484


Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:
to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.

James 1:27

When a man dies, the surviving wife is subjected to dehumanizing funeral rites. Every hair on her head is cleanly shaven; she is allowed the minimum of clothing just enough to cover her nakedness; she is made to sleep on the bare floor and to eat with broken plates. She is confined to the recesses of an inner chamber forbidden to see the light of day for some period prescribed by custom. The woman dare not complain. She will rather count herself lucky that she was not buried along with her husband. 2

Mr. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa
Former Judge of the Nigerian Supreme Court

I. Introduction

Agnes was only twenty when her husband died, leaving her with three children, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old. More than [End Page 425] fourteen years after his death, Agnes is still fighting to recover parts of his estate currently controlled by her sister-in-law. A lawsuit she filed in 1988 is still pending and Agnes is uncertain as to when and how the case will finally resolve. Meanwhile, she has had to support herself and her three children without any help from her in-laws, the village community, or the state. Agnes is able to maintain the lawsuit because she bore two sons for her husband. Had she been childless or had she had only female children, her story would have been very different. 3

Beatrice's husband died intestate in 1991, six years after their marriage. Immediately after his burial, Beatrice's in-laws summoned her to a family meeting and accused her of killing her husband. They forcibly took away her two small children, ordered Beatrice, five months pregnant at the time, to move out of her matrimonial home without her belongings, and told her that she could return after having the baby to swear an oath that she did not kill her husband. Only if they found her innocent would her belongings be released to her. Four years after her husband's death, Beatrice is still very frightened and confused. While she has contemplated legal action, she is afraid of losing the support of her own family, who has advised her to remain quiet. Moreover, she cannot afford the cost of a lawsuit on her meager salary. 4

When Zina's husband died ten years ago, she had to observe certain mandatory mourning rituals which have left her permanently incapacitated. She was prohibited from leaving town during the mourning period, her hair was shaved, and she was confined to a small, thatched outdoor hut for thirty days. The customary law forbade her from entering her home during these thirty days. Because this occurred during the rainy season and her palm leaf hut leaked, rain fell on her during most of the time she was outside. Zina has since developed rheumatism which she traces to her thirty-day ordeal in the rain. 5

These are not isolated accounts of the experiences of widows in Nigeria. Throughout much of Southern...


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