By Bianca Iboma
Women and children are still being subjected to harmful traditional practices in many parts of the country, in spite of continued calls to stop it.
This has heightened calls for legislation against the practices. Lady Ada Ofoegbu is the Lagos State woman Leader of the Ohaneze Ndi Igbo. She also works with the Nigeria Press Council as a Research Executive.
In this Interview with Daily Sun, Ofoegbu bares her mind on violence against women in relation to harmful traditional practices like widowhood rites, forced marriages amongst other issues
What is your contribution to the elimination of certain barbaric cultural practices meted on widows in Igboland?
Widowhood in Igboland is a terrible thing. The type of unfair treatments given to widows is inhumane. It is worse that a woman loses her husband, going through pains and emotional trauma, yet she is forced through some certain archaic traditions. The cultural practices is an aged-long tradition which should be stop.
The experiences is not something one would wish for an enemy. A situation where she is left unkempt, hair-shaven and in some cases, would not be allowed to take her bath. At extreme cases, she is asked to take an oath with the water washed from the corpse of her husband all to prove her innocence. Then, her fingernails would be left untrimmed for a long time.
I have been carrying out some form of advocacy against these inhumane practices, although, subtly.
Have you had a one on one encounter with a victim?
Yes, I have had the opportunity to interview a woman whose husband died. She explained to the me what she had been going through and how her brother-in law wanted to inherit her as a wife. I had to intervene in the matter. It is unbelievable that even the Christian women are among those who push this evil agenda.
With the emergence of Christianity, one would think that this archaic tradition would have been replaced, but surprisingly, it is strongly rooted and blossoming in South-Eastern Nigeria. A woman marries a man and has dreams of spending their lives together, unfortunately, his life is cut short abrubtly. She is shattered at that moment. The events that follows is unimaginable. The intervention of death in life terminates lofty dreams, ambitions and aspirations. In a marriage situation, death brings final separation leaving the living partner to carry on in agony and total denial of all the benefits.
As if that is not enough heartbreak, a certain brother in-law, who, perhaps had been married, wakes up from one side of his bed to add more salt to injury, he starts wooing the late brother’s widow. If she turns down the unholy offer, she will be castigated. A widow should be treated with empathy.
Some advocacy groups allege that fellow women are the brains behind the obnoxious agenda where widows are maltreated in Igboland. What is your opinion?
The challenge here is that those women in question are not educated. Whenever we have our August meeting which holds annually, the women who are abroad and the elites among us always hold sensitisation programmes on some of these knotty issues.
We must recognise and understand that these issues will not stop at once. Unfortunately, because some of the women have passed through this horrible experiences, they also feel that some other people must go through as well. There is always someone, somewhere who wants a pay-back. And so, the circle continues and it is not healthy. We must find a way to stop it. It may not be immediate but we will keep up with our sensitisation programme. I believe that if we continue to sensitise them we would get through it.
Widows in particular have been the worst victims of some of the terrible treatments. It ranges from dis-inheritance to rites that violate their human rights and negatively affect their health along with that of their children.
That is why it is necessary for laws to be enacted at all levels banning such harmful traditional practices. States in the country which are yet to pass laws against it should do so. Some states in the country have done well in promulgating laws banning all or some harmful traditional practices in their states.
However, passing a bill is one thing and implementation of such law, is another thing entirely. They should make efforts in preventing such practices and in sanctioning erring persons, families or communities. There are still cases of abuses even though, laws have been passed.
What is your view on the Supreme Court ruling on Igbo cultural practice of the girl-child not having inheritance?
I was so happy when it was ruled by the Supreme Court to favour the girl-child in Igbo-land. The practice was as if girls are not recognised. I am so sure that other Igbo women are equally happy. Although, my case was different because I had an inheritance from my father. Maybe because my brothers had been successful and my father’s property was not their interest. He willed every thing he had to me. Also, my father felt my brothers did not need the inheritance so I was given all the inheritance.
But I ask what about those who do not have such rare privilege? The girl-child is seen as nothing in the Igbo culture. When a woman gets married in Igbo land, fear literally grips her. The fear of not being able to give birth to a male child begins to eat her up.The pressure starts from her own mother in-law, brothers in-law, neighbours and then, the community. The only time she is well settled in her husband’s house is when she has a male child. It is the ultimate price she pays to gain some stability
As the children grow up, the girl child has the impression that her place in life is in the kitchen and so she must put the kitchen before the school. Before now, it wasn’t so. It took a fierce fight to change the situation before the girl child started going to school like the male children. I agree that every woman needs some good housekeeping and cooking skills but where we have the girl child dropping out of school because she must get married and help train her siblings in school is not right. It is ungodly and discriminatory.
In Nigeria, culture varies from one place to another in relation to cases of discrimination against women and their vulnerability. What is your view on this?
Nigeria is a patriarchal society where women are discriminated against. We are not lesser human beings.The Igbo’s of South Eastern Nigeria discriminate against women. Women are degraded and dehumanised, despite the provisions of our local statutes such as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and various other International Human Rights Instruments which Nigeria ratified. The widow is the fulcrum of this debased treatment.
Widows are subjected to agonising, painful and dehumanising treatments during their mourning rites and thereafter. This impact negatively on their social, psychological and physical wellbeing. Surprisingly, some of these obnoxious cultural practices are tacitly accepted and implemented by fellow women called the ‘Umuadas. This cultural rites should be examined and scrapped out constitutionally. I advocate for widowhood practices in South Eastern Nigeria and how the harmful rites should be eradicated.
In Nigeria, traditional practices have ensured that men retain material, social and moral dominance over women that they are simply unwilling to voluntarily relinquish. The woman is regarded as property and this dominate its customary laws on marriage, inheritance, succession and property ownership. There should be a national initiative to stop barbaric tradition on women.
With this challenges how do we improve the lots of women and the girl-child?
Government has not done enough in addressing issues concerning the girl child and the need to get more girls into schools.Nigeria still contributes to the highest number of out-of-school children. Looking at the dynamics of out-of-school children statistics, it is better to agree that it has a regional dimension. There seems to be a higher number in the northern part of Nigeria, particularly where the Chibok girls were kidnapped.
Education also will lead to development and growth and, if it is not taking this seriously, it will impact on our growth. Some of the issues affecting girls are early marriage, early childbirth, poor sanitation and shortage of female teachers. If you do not have female teachers in schools, it might affect the girl child’s zeal to attend a school. There was a time that we heard that male teachers was trying to abused a female students, this area some of the things affecting the girl child. It is just like not having a female doctor; girls might not want to open up completely to a male doctor.
There is also the issue of safety and security in schools; girls tend to suffer violence. From ages 15 and 24, about one out of every three girls have suffered violence one way or the other, either through sexual harassment, rape or incest. So it is important for the government to address the issue of sexual education, provide incentives for girls to complete their primary and secondary school education.
Also our government should negotiate with parents, who believe in giving their children out early for marriage,they must bring incentives, by ensuring that school fees are affordable or free, because it can deter parents from sending female children to school. By and large, it is the duty of the parents and the government to ensure that girls are educated because it will benefit everyone.
Child marriage is a practice in some parts of the country. Would you want it abolished the way a supreme court granted the Igbo girl-child the right of inheritance?
Generally, I would love the Supreme Court to rule and abolish it but when it comes to custom and tradition, it is more on the people. That is why the pace is slow. You cannot challenge and erase cultural belief of a people that is why it is culture is seen as the way of life.
Also the major causes of early child marriage include, poverty, bride price, dowry, cultural traditions, laws that allow child marriages, religious and social pressures, regional customs, fear of remaining unmarried, illiteracy and perceived inability of women to work for money.
Parents who engage their children in child marriage often feel that it provides their daughters with a sense of protection from sexual promiscuity and safe from sexually transmitted infections. But in reality, young girls tend to marry older men who have had lots of sexual expeditions thereby, placing them at an increased risks of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. We have to dialogue with traditional rulers they are the ones who made this laws it is man made and can be amended.
There is an alarming increase of rape cases on the girl-child especially little kids what do you think should be done to curb the re-occurrence of such incidence or act on female children?
The truth is education,once a child has the full knowledge of her environment especially the society we live in then we can begin to deal with it. I want to plead with women to educate their girl child. If she is informed about such incident, communicate and educate her about her private parts. No matter the age, let her know how to defend herself when she is confronted with situations. The truth is that we can be present every time but our watchful eyes can be on them if we empower them with the knowledge they need to survive in our society. If the girl-child possesses the right information it will equipped her to raise alarm whenever an attempt is made on her to be abused , because cause she already have a background knowledge about it. But if she see her mum as a threaten she would become a rape victims because she cannot open up when she is molested.
Women should endeavour to provide all the little items their kids may need. These are the little things they can use to lure them. Men should stop abusing women, no matter the age. A woman should not be forced against her wish into marriage. There was a case where an elderly women was used to perfect the process of an under aged girl marrying an old man against her wish. It was after the marriage rites were finished that she realised the old man was her husband. While the man wanted to have carnal knowledge of her, she put up resistance but he hired some people who held her and he forcefully defiled her.
Perpetrators of this kind of thing should punished by the law. Victims are traumatised. Older men should leave under aged girls to enjoy their childhood. It is pathetic for females to be assaulted sexually.