In some cultures, they are denied, thrown out after their husbands’ death for bearing female children
Practice offends principle of natural justice –lawyer
By Cosmas Omegoh
For a woman, perhaps, nothing can be as painful as losing her husband while she is still young. This is one calamity that can strike any woman when she least expects it. All of a sudden, the man she has been living with dies, leaving her distraught.
The woman wakes up from her seeming midday dream to a grim world of sorrow and sadness, partially aware that her man for years is gone never to be seen again. He is gone the way all mortals go without saying as much as a goodbye. Then gradually the wife begins to adjust to a new life and to embrace the telling truth that the man she called her heartthrob has left her.
Now, guess what happens next. The woman is now left on her own like fish out of water. Sometimes, sitting and seething in anger and despair, she stares into space and seeing nothing. Everything the world can give seems to her like dung, with the future holding vague terror or at the very best gloom because her world is disappearing, if not plummeting into the dark abyss. Where would she begin; who would help her gather her bits and pieces? She asks questions and questions with nothing realistically reassuring coming her way. Like the Biblical Rachael, she refuses to be consoled because she has one big reason to be distraught: Her husband is no more.
While the woman is being buffeted, savagely lashed on all fronts by the waves of her loss, just as her husband’s lifeless body is about to gather ice right in the morgue, some unsavoury scenarios dramatically begin to tumble in. Pronto, her brothers-in-law, the ones everyone knows as the dead man’s relatives, sweep in like hurricane, ranting, combing every nook and cranny of the home, grubbing at every item of property they believe belong to their brother, which they suspect her wife might hide from them. They begin to ask a barrage of questions: “Where are his bank details? How much money is in each account? Where are his building documents? Where are the keys and particulars of the cars in the garage?”
Then like men from the local tax office, they proceed to seal off the dead man’s business outlets. They don’t want his wife to have access to anything in them.
Every action carried out by these invaders is targeted at stripping the woman bare of all her husband had, including the houses she probably laboured with him to build, the reason being that she bore him all female children. They wouldn’t listen to pleas that some of the property they want to tow away are actually the fruit of the woman’s labour. In some instance, they want to punish the woman, by extension her children and ultimately the deceased apparently for denying them a share in his wealth while he was alive.
The ongoing scenario has been the lot of many women in both the recent and distant past. Even now, a lot more women are having a rough patch, with many waiting to suffer same fate.
Just recently for instance, Lillian (not her real name), lost her husband, Tony, to stroke. Before Tony became bedridden, he was such a vivacious, jolly-good fellow – who worked hard at his trade. Lillian, who was not the loud type, worked as a marketer in a company and was making some cool cash. She threw everything she got into her marriage and helped her husband bring forth two female children.
Lillian almost singlehandedly built the house she and her husband lived in Lagos. While her husband was ill, she catered for the family all alone, ensuring that the children fed and attended school. She also bore the weight of her husband’s medical expenses.
When Tony eventually gave up the ghost, his exit was such a big loss yet a huge relief. Naturally, Lillian was thrown into deep mourning.
Then soon after Tony died, his brothers ferried his body home and had it kept in a hospital morgue ahead of its burial. Then a day or two after, the big scramble began. His brothers descended on Lillian. They wanted to take over the building; they wanted Tony’s rickety car sold. They wanted his bank details; they wanted to know how much it held. They simply wanted everything. No one was talking about the welfare of Lillian and her children; the elder of the two was 12.
Against this backdrop, some Nigerians have been speaking, with a lawyer among them, providing the legal perspective, insisting that every woman has a right to inherit her husband’s property.
Chief Udoka Udogaranya, President, Ndigbo Cultural Society of Nigeria (NCSN), told the reporter that in Igbo culture, women did not have right to property. Their inheritance lay in her matrimonial homes; this, however, had to be if they bore male children for their husbands. He added that the women’s right could only be guaranteed if their husbands provided a will.
“In Igbo land, women do not own property,” he said. “Ndigbo don’t hand out their property to their daughters as well. They only have their shares in their husbands’ homes.
“Once a man dies, his wife is entitled to remarry. If she chooses that option, while her people are coming for her husband’s burial, they will not bring a live goat. But if she wants to stay, they will come with a live goat, which is handed over to her brother-in-law, who will inherit her. On the other hand, if the woman has a male child, it is he that will inherit his mother. It is the man, who breaks the kola nut.
“But if the woman did not beget a male child, there is no way she will inherit her husband’s property.
“However, things are changing fast. If a man decides to write his will, he might apportion some of his property to his wife and that stays. But if he fails to do that, there is no way his wife will be allowed to inherit his property, especially if she didn’t have a male child.”
This culture is not different from what the Ibibios in Akwa-Ibom hold highly.
Speaking to the reporter on condition of anonymity, a man, Asuquo, said: “Among the Ibibio, if the woman has a male child she will be allowed to retain her husband’s property. In that case, such property belong to the young boy.
“However, we don’t allow a woman to inherit her husband’s property if all she has are female children. But she might be considered for a share for the sake of the girls or if she is such a good woman. This is so because it is considered that she would soon remarry and go her way, especially if she is still young. And when her daughter is ripe, she will leave the family and marry.”
But the situation is not the same in Islam and Yoruba land, according to Prof Ishaq Akintola, Director Muslim Rights Concern (MRC). He said that women had unfettered rights to inherit the property of their fathers and husbands.
“From the Yoruba and Islamic perspective, women have right to the property of both their fathers and husbands. Once a woman is married, whether she begets a child: Male or female or none at all, she can inherit her husband’s properties.
“To my mind, it is important to re-engineer the minds of people, who deprive women of their God-given inheritance.
“But I think this derives from the fear that, sometimes, some women have hands in the deaths of their husbands. Some women grind pieces of glass and secretly mix it with their husbands’ food so that the poor men will eat and die so that they will become landladies. So, when this happens, such women are put through all manner of torture and denied the right to their husbands’ property.
“However, it is unjust to deny a woman the right to what belongs to her. This mostly has grave consequence for the children, as they will be deprived of sources of their upbringing. And in most cases, those who usurp the property end up being careless with them.”
In all of these, however, what does the law of the land say? Here, a legal practitioner, Mr. Pat Anyadubalu, provided a big insight, saying that in the eyes of the law, a woman as long as she was legally married to her husband has every right to inherit his property, whether she begot male, female or no children at all. He insisted that “this is consistent with the principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience.”
He noted that the law also guarantees every female child the right to her father’s inheritance like her male counterparts.
Anyadubalu cited the case of Anekwe and Nweke in which the Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that every widow had a right to keep her husband’s property, after the case went all the way from Awka High Court in Anambra State to the apex court.
“After the death of the man, his brother sought to eject his widow from the family house. But the woman sued him to the state High Court, Awka, and won her case. The man took the matter to the Court of Appeal and lost. Not done, he approached the Supreme Court. But Justice Clara Ogunbiyi dismissed his application and even expressed strong sentiments of anger that the appellant could go that far all in an attempt to evict the widow from her husband’s home. That is what we have at the moment,” he added.