The study area is Ozubulu, the headquarters of Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State in Nigeria. It is a rural community in the heart of Igbo tribe, and most of their cultural practices are typical of the Igbo tribe in south-east Nigeria. Ozubulu town has a population of 36,000 inhabitants.14 Most of the inhabitants of the area are Christians of the Catholic and Anglican denominations, with the Catholics forming 75% of the population.15
In spite of the 90 years of contact with western education and Christian religion, widowhood rites and practices considered to be dehumanising are prevalent in the area.7,16 In recent times, there have been conflicts between families, traditional and religious groups when some of the rites and practices are being enforced, especially when working class or fundamental Pentecostal groups are involved. Such conflicts sometimes result to open verbal and physical violence even at the places of burial, resulting in disruption of social activities, ostracisation and sanctions among disagreeing groups. Apart from affecting community life, the widow is the centre of the crisis, a situation that worsens her physical and mental state.
Ozubulu town is in Nnewi Diocese in both the Catholic and Anglican churches. Ozubulu is also the headquarters of Ozubulu deanery of the Catholic Diocese. The Catholic Church has four statutory organizations. the Catholic Men Organisation (CMO), the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO), Catholic Boys Organisation (CBO) and the Catholic Girls Organisation (CGO). The four statutory bodies coordinate the activities of men, women, boys and girls respectively and membership into an appropriate group is mandatory for all Catholic laymen.
The Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) is structured hierarchically such that there is an apex executive committee at the Ozubulu Parish level, and the zones at the village levels. Each zone sends delegates or officers to the apex or central executive during their quarterly meetings. A general meeting of all the women holds every year in August – the popular “August meeting”. All Catholic women of Ozubulu living in towns outside Ozubulu form zones wherever they live and attend meetings as in the home zones. They are classified as CWO Abroad. This organisational structure ensures grassroot membership and participation.
Between January and June 2000, four major conflicts and events precipitated the CWO interest in and action on widowhood practices. On one occasion, a widow was alleged to have maltreated her husband and had not taken good care of him when he was on his sick bed. The umu ada (the daughters union) accused her of being responsible for her husband’s death, and ruled that if the woman was contesting, then she should prove her innocence by drinking the washings of her husband’s corpse. Where she refused to drink, she would be ostracised and dragged along the streets to her father’s house. This is an accepted traditional practice (igu mmiri ozu). Another option was for her to crawl over her husband’s corpse (ige ukwu ozu). The women relations of the widow and some CWO members at the funeral resisted this and conflict ensued.
Another case involved a young widow working in a bank in Lagos. She was required to restrict her movement and not go for work for six months. She was to be in the village, confined to the compound in mourning dress. The widow explained that she would loose her job and disrupt her children’s schooling in Lagos. The community sanctioned her for breaking the traditional norm of not mourning her husband for the customary duration (ilu uju). The umu ada fined her the sum of N 10,000.00 and compelled her to stay at her father’s house for one month as a punishment.
In the third event, the umu ada refused to shave the head of the widow because they alleged that she did not show enough sorrow that her husband died. They alleged that she was conversing freely and even smiled with sympathisers. It was a taboo for a widow to laugh or look cheerful when her husband has not been buried. She was appropriately fined for the misdemeanour. Not shaving one’s hair for the husband is a sign of not mourning him and is feared to attract the dead husband’s wrath on the widow and other members of the family.
The fourth event was that of a widow who died six months after her husband’s death. The Christian community gathered for her burial and funeral, but other members of her village resisted and insisted that the woman should be thrown into the evil forest without mourning for her since she committed an abomination by dying before the end of the traditional mourning period.
Materials and Method
The study was carried out from January to December 2001. In-depth interviews, group discussions, participant observation and records from meetings were used to elicit needed information. One of the authors serves as the chairman of the parish council and a member of the town union executive, a position that got him involved in the dynamics of advocacy employed by the women. The second author is an active member and executive member of the CWO and was one of the core actors in the programme. Minutes of the discussions in ten meetings of the CWO with regard to widowhood practices were recorded. Thirty in-depth interviews of the officers of the CWO at various levels, twenty five in-depth interviews of widows and ten in-depth interviews of women elders were conducted. Fifteen informal group discussions were also recorded. These were recorded on tapes and hand notes and later transcribed and compiled. Notes on the minutes of the meeting of the CWO were kindly made accessible by the secretary. The researchers attended burials and some of the meetings where most of the events occurred and took notes.
The activities of the women were evaluated as a social and health mobilisation activity using the community action cycle process framework developed by Health Communications Partnership, and the John Hopkins Population Information Programme13 (Figure 1). The community action cycle process is drawn from theories and concepts of social science systems approach, which has been defined as a process of public and private dialogue through which people define who they are, what they want and how they can get it.13 The success and sustenance of the programme were also evaluated one year after the inception using the monitoring and evaluation reports of the women groups and personal observations of the researchers, who lived in the community.
Preparation to Mobilise and Organising the Community for Action
The central executives of the CWO held six meetings between July and December 2000 to deliberate on widowhood practices in the area. Eighty to one hundred members were present in each meeting and were made up of represen-tatives or delegates from the zones within and outside the community. They had brainstorming sessions where they relived and narrated experiences of widowhood. They agreed that it affected their physical and mental health and infringed their human and reproductive rights. They identified the principal dehumanising widowhood rites and practices to include the following:
Drinking washings from husband’s corpse to exonerate wife from accusations of killing her husband.
Crawling over husband’s corpse (ige fe ukwu ozu) for the same purpose of exoneration.
A widow not having a bath until after eight market days (one month) when she would be led to the river by twelve midnight to bathe (iwu ahu).
A widow having to sit on bare floor during the period of mourning.
A widow having to cry aloud to the hearing of the villagers almost all nights to demonstrate grief and that she misses her husband throughout the first month of mourning.
Restriction of the woman’s movement to market, church, social events for the one year period of mourning.
Loss of right of inheritance, if she has no male child.
Compulsory fasting on the day of her husband’s burial.
Punitive refusal to shave the widow’s hair by the umuada.
Long mourning and restriction period.
Wife inheritance or forced marriage by close relatives at the end of the mourning period.
Stigmatising a widow who died within the mourning period and refusing her corpse burial rites.
The women also observed that women are the victims, perpetrators and enforcers of the sanctions. The patrilineal daughters (umuada) are the key perpetrators and enforcers who most of the time are prejudiced against their dead relations’ wives for past disagreements or misunder-standings. They see the widowhood period as a time for vendetta. The women reasoned that umuada are not faceless people but members of the women group, and an umuada in her father’s village could one day be a widow in another village. It is therefore women fighting women and, therefore, they must collectively stop the practice for the benefit of every woman.
The women identified fear and superstition as another obstacle to eliminating widowhood practices. There are beliefs that the spirit of the dead husband hovers around and would want to continue to associate with the wife. The spirits might be malevolent if the widow does not subscribe to widowhood rights. The women resolved to tackle this issue through prayers and by keeping widows company to strengthen and encourage them and by educating them that most often all the beliefs are superstitious.Planning Together
The executive body wanted all the identified practices, except loss of right of inheritance and wife inheritance, to be eliminated. They reasoned that taking up these two issues would jeopardize their chances of achieving others, since they are core cultural practices that touch on customary law. They agreed that these two issues could be tackled later if they succeeded with the first initiative. In their conclusive meeting, they resolved as follows:
To reduce the mourning period to six months.
To reduce confinement to home to one month.
Widows should have the option of wearing black or white as mourning dress for not more than six months. Widows should however not wear necklace, earrings or coloured dress.
Laws stipulating not bathing and ritual bathing should be abolished.
On no account should widows drink washings from the dead husband’s corpse.
Widows who die within the customary mourning period should be accorded full burial rights.
Christian women of every zone should shave the widow as soon as her husband is buried, and should not allow the umuada to do the shaving so as not to givem the opportunity to victimise or prescribe fines.
Widows should comport themselves and avoid sexual activities that could make them pregnant while mourning their husbands.
Zones that go against these recommendations should be penalised.
Acting Together/Implementation Advocacy
Advocacy with religious leaders
Having taken these decisions, the next line of action was advocacy. The women group proceeded to meet the parish priests and parish councils, who are the governing bodies in the churches, to solicit their support and encouragement.
Advocacy with town union and traditional leaders
The town union also has a women wing. Most of her members are also actors in the CWO programme. They collaborated with CWO delegates to win the support of town union leaders. The support of the Obi-in-Council, comprising the town warrant chief and his cabinet, was also solicited.
Networking with other women groups
The CWO met with other women groups in other religious denominations, namely, the Anglican Guild and the Mothers Union, and the women wing of the Ozubulu Development Union (ODU). These groups simultaneously initiated widowhood practice reforms. The idea that widowhood practices is tantamount to women punishing women was well assimilated and used as a strategy to overcome resistance from the umuada and other women.
In anticipation of opposition from the men and some influential community leaders, some of the outspoken ones were conferred with titles of patrons of the CWO. Through this induction they won them over as advocates and supporters even before the resolution was made public. This strategy was the foremost in forestalling resistance to change especially from the men folk. There were however few oppositions from elderly women who insisted that they would mourn their husbands for not less than one year, and did not support the wearing of white clothing for mourning. The CWO considered this a generation gap issue, which will fizzle away and granted them a silent concession