This report by Alfred AJAYI presents the experiences and testimonies of women from South-Eastern Nigeria where the practice of disinheritance of widows is prevalent.
Igbo culture and tradition on disinheritance of widows
THE traditional ruler of Breme Community, Eha-Alumona in Nsukka Local Government Area, Igwe Cassidy Eze, agrees that the custom around inheritance in Igboland is in favour of men, and is unlikely to change soon.
“Whatever a man had when he was alive belongs to the male children. You don’t have to include a girl-child in your property while you are alive sharing it. But if your male children decide to give part of your property to their sister, who happens to be your daughter, that is their goodwill but it is no tradition. When a woman marries, she will not take anything to the husband because she will get new property from the new husband.
“If the girl is not married, the first son of her father can use his discretion and give out anything to the girl. However, if before he dies, the man gives out anything to the daughter, that remains so,” Igwe Eze submitted.
The custom in Ugwaji- Awkunanaw, a community in Enugu South Local Government Area of Enugu State, forbids a childless widow to inherit her husband’s property. This was disclosed by the regent of the community, Onowu Dennis Okeke-Ani, who also recalled past cases which saw uncles or brothers to the deceased dispossessing widows of the property of their brothers.
“Yes, they try to deny the woman the right of inheritance. And, if the woman sees that she has nothing there, she can find her way. Likewise, girls have no inheritance in their father’s family. They are only to pray to have a husband and go out of their father’s house.
“If the girl decides to stay in her father’s compound and start bearing children, she then has the right to be the owner of the compound. If not, the uncles may claim her father’s property. However, if the father has business outfits, vehicles in the cities, he has the right to give the female child anything he wants but not the ones in the village, according to the tradition, the girl has no inheritance right”.
The traditional ruler of Umuawulu in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State, Igwe Joel Egwuonwu, agreed that Igbo culture and, indeed, that of his community does not permit female children to inherit their father’s estates. He noted, however, that a widow is at liberty to inherit her husband’s estate.
“In Igboland, girls don’t inherit their father’s estate. Are you saying that when my sister gets married to an American, she will carry my father’s estate to an American husband? That is not possible. However, our culture does not forbid widows from inheriting their late husbands’ estates. In fact, it is expected that the relations of the dead men will rally round their widows to ensure that they and their children don’t suffer. It is not cultural to disinherit the widows”.
The traditional ruler of the Nkaliki Echara Unuhu community in Ebonyi Local Government Area, Eze Sunday Oketa, gave an insight into the dictates of culture in that area concerning the right of widows to inheritance.
“In Igboland, when you marry and God blesses you with children, the first son of the family is the father of the family after the death of his father. He will carry all his brothers along including his mother. But, the mother, being the widow, has the right to tell her children what is supposed to be. And her children will listen to her because their father is no more living.
“In our own custom in Izzi, when your husband dies, it does not mean that the property of your husband does not belong to you anymore. It is just that the children of the dead man will be taking care of the property of the father including the mother. No relation has the right to collect her husband’s property. We don’t do that here”.
What do the laws say on disinheritance?
The right to freedom from discrimination is internationally recognized as a human right and enshrined the principle of egalitarianism, which is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in international human rights laws.
Article Two of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or another status.
The Nigeria Constitution 1999 (as amended), in its Chapter4, Section 42, equally protects citizens from any form of discrimination on the basis of place of origin, sex, religion, or political opinion.
The Chairperson of FIDA in Anambra State, Professor Ikpeze, said there are local laws protecting the interest of widows in the area, especially against disinheritance.
”We have the Widowhood and Widowerhood Rights Law of Anambra State 2005. Section 4 sub-section G, states that you cannot drive a widow out of her husband’s house. The law empowers the widow to inherit her husband’s property.
“Besides, we have the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (2015) at the federal level and VAPP Law 2017 in Anambra State, which prescribes punishments for harmful traditional practices, including disinheritance.”
Her counterpart in Enugu State, Sylvia Abana, argued that discrimination against women, including their exclusion from inheritance, is unconstitutional, citing the 2014 Supreme Court judgment in cases of Ukeje Vs Ukeje and Anekwe Vs Nweke, where the court reiterated that any customary law that denied a widow or female child her right to inheritance is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.
Similarly, Ebonyi enacted VAPP law in 2018 while that of Enugu State came a year after in 2019. Besides, Enugu State has the “Prohibition of Infringement of Widow’s and Widower’s Fundamental Rights Law 2001, which was enacted to make it unlawful for anyone to infringe the fundamental rights of widows and widowers.
The Judiciary has also been acclaimed for handing down judgments meant to give women and girls relief from the obnoxious inheritance custom, by establishing equality under the law, a development that has invalidated the superiority claim of the male folks over the females.
Many legal experts agree that a recent Supreme Court ruling, which gives female children the right to inherit their late fathers, is a victory for all women. In the judgment, the Apex Court ruled that the tradition and custom which forbids female children from taking part in the sharing of their father’s estate is discriminatory and in conflict with the provision of the constitution. The Court ruling on an appeal marked SC.224/2004 and filed by Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje (wife of the late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje against Ms. Gladys Ada Ukeje (daughter of the deceased), upheld the earlier positions of Lagos High Court, the Court of Appeal, Lagos, that Lois Ukeje is entitled to her father’s estate.
The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal, Lagos was right to have voided the Igbo native law and custom that disinherit female children. According to the lead judgment read by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’ estate”.
The Apex Court further held that the Igbo customary law, which disinherits a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is a breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.
“It is victory also for the widows as they will no longer lose from their fathers’ and husbands’ ends,” said Menkiti.
“The practice has been that only the male children share the property of their fathers without allocating anything to the female children, which is really unfortunate because these female children are the ones who take care of their fathers when they are old or are ill. Luckily, things are changing as enlightened families are beginning to do things differently with the understanding that every child is a child. If there are estates to inherit, they should be shared equally among all,” she concluded.
Law should accommodate good parts of culture and traditions
However, some of the traditional rulers, particularly in the South-East, where the practice is believed to be most prevalent are not comfortable with the ruling of the Apex Court, describing as disregarding the rich culture and tradition of the people, which had existed for several decades.
Although the regent of Ugwuaji Awkunanaw, Onowu Dennis Okeke-Ani, agrees that the customary law on inheritance has been unfair to women, he and Igwe Eze noted that it will be hard for people to adopt the judgment of the Supreme Court and respect the country’s constitution on the inclusion of women in the sharing of the property of their late fathers or husbands.
“It will be difficult to implement such ruling because it is against our custom. It is when someone has property outside in the cities that such judgment will be respected. But the property at home (in the village), the man cannot share between male and female children.
“Unless the females are not married, the father may decide to give them (the girls) something because it is not their fault that they are not married. However, such girls must find ways of getting their own children so that nobody will fight to dispossess them of the share they got from their fathers in the future”.
The traditional ruler of Umuawulu, Igwe Joel Egwuonwu, maintained that the laws are primarily foreign and most often an affront on cherished cultural practices.
“I think those, who make our laws should in some cases (not in all) accommodate our culture and traditions, not to import that of Americans and Europeans. That will help us a lot. So that if such should go to court, the court will look at what the culture of the people says and consider such as the basis for their judgment. We cannot uphold the thinking that everything about our cultures is wrong. There are reasons for some of those cultural practices and they are not bad”.
Solutions to the disinheritance of widows
Respondents recommended sustained awareness creation and sensitization campaign as a good approach towards ending the disinheritance of widows while implementation of existing laws must be taken seriously.
Former FIDA Chairperson in Enugu State, Mrs. Nkiru Nwabueze-Ugwu believes that the level of awareness is still very low.
“Most of the disinherited widows feel helpless and keep it to themselves. I think the Governments have done their part, putting the laws in place. But, all the agencies of government and Non-Governmental Organizations must take up the task of sensitizing the public. We are doing something, but much more is yet needed to fill the gaps”.
On her part, Menkiti identified committed implementation of existing laws as very critical to the campaign to put a stop to the inhuman practice.
“It is good having a legislative framework in place. But, it is better for implementing the laws. When people know that they have the right to inherit under the law, they will be encouraged to seek redress when there is a violation. We must the women in the South-East know about the existence of the various laws”.
For Ugwuanyi, the traditional rulers are in the position to extend the frontiers of the campaign. “Some traditional rulers don’t play their roles well. Most of them live outside their domains. They live in Lagos, Enugu, Awka, Onitsha and other cities. I advise the government to ensure that the certificate of recognition is not given to anyone who cannot live within his community to oversee the subjects well,” she stated.
“I also appeal to the traditional rulers to get conversant with the laws and partner relevant organizations to educate the citizens on the consequences of going against the laws. If all of us begin to see everybody as equal before the law, those abuses will naturally we fizzle out,” she said further.
The National President of Non-Governmental Organizations, Lazarus Nwachukwu, argued that education is an eye-opener that must be embraced by all and sundry, as a way of addressing societal problems.
“Education is the bedrock of every human endeavour. I am sure that with what the present Minister for Women Affairs is doing, there is a need for us in the civil society to collaborate with her to help women to actualize their rights. So, it behooves the Ministry of Women Affairs to start shouting with the National Orientation Agency, to propagate the rights of women, the way it should be. And even the National Assembly has a role to play to give relief to women, especially those who had been disinherited”.
What is being done?
It was discovered in the course of this report that FIDA, the NHRC, the Legal Aid Council, the Family Law Centre among others, are making efforts towards ensuring the abolition of harmful practices against widows.
The National President, Council of NGOs, Lazarus Nwachukwu, said efforts are being made to reverse what he called the disservice to women.
“We have seen it as a very great disservice to women. No matter the reason for doing it, it deprives the women of getting their rightful inheritance from their husbands. The society was structured to favour men. But all that is fast changing. The global perspective today is that every hand must be on deck to reverse the practice that deprives women of the right of inheritance. Women must have their rights protected at every point”.
Abana, who attributed the prevalence of the practice to the failure of men to prepare their will before they die, pointed out that dialogue had been employed in settling such issues.
“These days, people are encouraged to resort to mediation, alternative dispute resolution. So it’s either you go by arbitration, mediation, conciliation and it’s more peaceful of settling matters so at the end of the day you will still be friends with whoever that you had issues with. We have broken borders, we have a broken ceiling the much we can because we normally hold mediation every day”.
Efforts are not being spared in Anambra State as explained by Ikpeze, the FIDA Chairperson:
“We have tried to sensitize the women. We are now going round to sensitize the traditional rulers and the Presidents-General because ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Members of FIDA in Anambra State have gone to Ihiala, Achina and so many places to ensure that widows get their dues with their children. And you see some times, very educated people are involved. So, I think the relations should do well to take good care of the widow, lessen her pains and agony instead of deepening the wound of losing her husband. After all, when the woman died, the husband takes everything that belongs to her and still marries another wife”.
To help widows in Ebonyi, many of who are poor, Chima said that FIDA does not charge for its legal assistance to them.
“We don’t charge for our services. But since we don’t have government partnership or sponsorship to take care of certain costs, we tell the clients we cannot render the legal services free and still bear the cost of filing processes among other expenses. The person takes care of the cost, but we don’t charge a dime for our legal services. Since I came on board, we’ve not really gone to court. We have used Alternative Dispute Resolution in partnership with other stakeholders like police, representatives of the Ministry of Justice and other respected individuals in the bar”.
Apart from FIDA, there are several other governmental and non-governmental institutions defending the course of widows and women in society. One of them is the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria. Its Co-ordinator in Ebonyi State, Okwuegbe Egenti, itemized their efforts towards protecting widows against disinheritance.
“We have been preaching to our people against disinheriting the widows because there is a plethora of cases especially Mojekwu V Mojekwu, where the Appeal Court ruled that such practice is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. A woman should be left naturally to take over the property of her husband. No contestation from the relations of the husband.
“Legal Aid Council is the voice for the voiceless, especially widows, who are almost helpless when their husbands are dead. Our services are rendered pro-bono for the indigent.
“Civil servants, who earn more than the minimum wage, will pay ten percent of the cost of pursuing the case to the Legal Aid Council. But, if you don’t have anything or you earn below minimum wage, the Council will plead your case free of charge, even up to the Supreme Court”.
Government not insensitive – state governments
Reacting to prevailing denial of the right of women to inheritance in some communities in the state, the acting Permanent Secretary, Enugu State Ministry of Gender and Social Development, Uzoamaka Uzoechina, said the state government had laws to deal with such cases.
She also asked widows with genuine complaints of marginalization, intimidation and denial of access to their husband’s property, to petition the ministry.
“This Ministry is charged with looking at violence against women, to stop it. We normally intervene immediately, we invite the parties and then we mediate, and most often during the mediation, people take the advice and heed our rules. But when they fail, we have a family court charged with seeing that women are not treated as slaves. They also help us to ensure that people who fail in this matter face the law”.
Mrs. Uzoechina remarked that the government had enacted Violence Against Persons Prohibition, (VAPP) Law, which forbids harmful practices against women and girls, including widows.
The Commissioner for Women and Children Affairs in Anambra State could not be gotten for comments on what Anambra State Government, through her ministry is doing to protect the interest of the widows in the state. She did not pick calls nor replied to the SMS message sent to her on the subject matter.
However, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Dan Ezeanwu, maintained that the Supreme Court ruling on disinheritance of widows cannot be reversed.
“Once there is a Supreme Court ruling, you can’t be talking about any other position. How can you be commenting on what the Apex Court in the land had ruled on? That is government to government. You don’t expect the government to begin to take another position. After all, the Judiciary is an arm of government and theirs is to do the interpretation of laws. When you are looking for comments, go to the non-government actors, go to the civil society and the traditional rulers, who are the custodians of tradition in various communities. They will tell you what is obtainable across the board”.
Ebonyi State Government has also not been insensitive to the plight of the widows said the Director, Child and Women Development in the Ministry of Women Affairs and Child Development, Godwin Igwe.
“The Ministry has been fighting that, in partnership with Development Partners such as the United Nations Population Fund, USAID among others. We have been enlightening the people that women should be given the right to ownership of the property because even if you marry a housewife, that woman is contributing to whatever the husband is earning. When you are away to work, she cooks for you, keeps the compound clean, washes your clothes, and takes care of your children. How do you quantify such an economic contribution? So, the people disinherit them because they think that it is their brother that has everything. But, in legal terms, the truth of the matter is that the property a man owns is community property, meaning it belongs to the man and the wife because she has been contributing indirectly.
“Also, people claim that when you marry a woman, she is more of your property. And if you acquire a property, you are the owner of the woman and the property. So, when the man dies, the kindred, relations, brothers come around to say look, even when my brother was alive, he was the owner of everything, so, how do you now come to claim ownership? We have been intervening in a mature and diplomatic way because it is something that is cultural and you cannot wave it out overnight”.
Most of the respondents including traditional rulers agreed that the custom disinheriting women and girls must be looked into in line with prevailing realities across the world, if not for anything to uphold their fundamental human rights which protect them against any form of discrimination.
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