By Nanji Nandang, JOS
The sound of the buzzing phone startled Chioma (not her real name), 34, at about 1 am on that cold Saturday of June 2017, after she unexpectedly dozed off on the couch in her cozy living room of Gold and Base, an urban area in the metropolitan city of Jos, Plateau state, North-Central Nigeria – she was waiting for her husband Davou (not his real name) 38, to come back from work.
“Are you Mrs. Davou?” the caller asked. That was the call that changed Chioma’s life, as she was informed that her husband was involved in an auto crash, marking the beginning of a life of hardship for the full-time housewife.
Davou, an intrastate commercial driver, had gone for business as usual in Abuja and insisted on returning home that day to take care of his wife who was 8-month pregnant. She was ill when he left home. On approaching Hawan Kibo, in Riyom Local Government Area of Plateau State, a speeding truck crashed into him and six passengers in his silver-coloured Sienna bus.
Even though he was the only survivor when the rescue team came, Davou gave up the ghost a few minutes after arriving at the hospital, and that was when the hospital called Chioma. This news led the young widow to miscarry the 8-month-old pregnancy.
Davou was the breadwinner of his family. He had asked Chioma, a talented tailor, to stop working and focus solely on raising their three kids.
As his widow was trying to recover from the loss of a loving husband, her 8 months old pregnancy, and the reality of providing for three children, a new chapter of experience began in her life – Gender-based violence.
A property to be inherited
A few months after Chioma’s husband was buried, Dung (not his real name), his older brother, visited her on a steamy October afternoon in 2017. She assumed it was a routine sympathy visit.
After sitting for a while, he stretched his legs on the centre table in the living room watching television, and demanded in Berom, his indigenous language “Wouldn’t you serve me something to eat?” Chioma, who is an Igbo lady understood him clearly – she had come to learn the Berom language, as a result of marrying Davou.
Chioma served him the remaining portion of the rice and beans she had reserved for dinner.
“When are you planning to leave?” Chioma asked impatiently as evening approached,
“I have come to sleep with you and claim my inheritance as the Berom customs and traditions imply,” he replied.
She was shocked by his response. She forced him out of the house that evening, and he threatened to deal with her.
“I was summoned to my husband’s village in Jos south Local Government Area, by his brothers a few days later, for an urgent family meeting,” Chioma said. The family ordered her to move to the single room they prepared for her in the village because she is their inheritance according to their tradition.
“They said if I want to ensure my financial security and children’s upkeep then I must marry into the family again,” she said.
When Chioma refused to accept their demand, they banished her from her husband’s land and seized his property.
“They took everything and refused to pay my children’s school fees,” she said. Chioma’s in-laws disinherited her children, even though she had a son. “I didn’t have anyone to help me because I couldn’t disturb my widowed mother with my problems. Life has been difficult ever since, but I can’t thank my church member enough for giving us a small room on her poultry farm,” Chioma said.
Disinherited from her father’s estate
Just like Chioma and the children, 49-year-old Kangyang (not her real name) and her younger sisters in Gyel community of Jos South, Local Government Area, Plateau state, were disinherited from their father’s estate after his demise.
“Dung, then 28, my father’s younger brother’s son was staying with and helping my father with the business before he died, so he automatically took charge of our father’s estate, because all the four of us are girls,” she said.
Their mother had died a few years before their father, and the four sisters eventually got married, leaving Dung in charge. Until 2010, when Kangyang and two of her sisters’ houses and shops were razed down during the crisis in the community, they decided to move to one of their father’s houses and sell one of the plots to start a business.
Dung was trying to help them with the sale when Teng (not his real name), his father, protested against it. “Don’t you know that, as women, you don’t have any right to your father’s properties? A married woman at that,” he growled.
Teng called for a family meeting immediately and ordered Kangyang and her sisters to stay off their father’s properties because tradition forbids them from meddling with their deceased father’s heritage.
Kangyang and her sisters tried settling the case during a series of family meetings, but it proved abortive, so they sought redress in the court of law in 2017 and they regained their father’s estate in 2021.
We protect widows and girls – Traditional Council
Available statistics show that Nigeria has over eight million disadvantaged widows with over 21 million children. These underprivileged widows and their vulnerable children constitute a significant component of the country’s population.
“Inheriting widows and disinheriting a girl child is a harmful tradition in Jos south that we pulled down in 2020 when we enacted the bye-laws that promote equity for gender,” says Jonathan Danyang, the Secretary of the Jos South Traditional Council.
According to Dangyang, the council has a designated committee that handles such cases but if the family involved refuses to abide by the law, it officially files a court case because every child and widow have the right to inherit their fathers and husbands in the land.
“The only challenge we have is the Judicial system. They can stall a case for years and we don’t have the financial standing to hold a case for that long” he added.
While outlining the victory the council has gained in this area, Dangyang promised to handle Chioma’s case immediately, noting that before this reporter called it was not reported to the council.
VAPP Law in Plateau State
Since 2015, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Law of Nigeria has made it illegal to “inherit or disinherit a widow,” a centuries-old tradition in some parts of Nigeria. Violations of this law are punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of 500,000 naira. However, only 23 of the nation’s 36 states have adapted the VAPP Law into their own statutes, and the negative cultural practices continue to prevail.
According to Jumai Madaki, the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) Plateau state project coordinator “The VAPP was passed and assented to by Governor Simon Lalong on December 24th, 2020, but it has not been gazetted.”
Madaki said WRAPA has held a series of sensitization and advocacy to ensure the law is gazetted because it is a straight law that gives liberty to determine the penalty for offences.
“Wife inheritance is an old practice in Rukuba chiefdom of Bassa LGA and other communities in Plateau state. They claim a widow must remain in her home so that the brother-inlaw can take care of her needs; physical, and emotional, and they may have children. While the girl child doesn’t have an inheritance because she is expected to marry and drop her maiden name, unlike the boys who remain in the family, they propagate the family name,” Madiki explains.
However, she said the Child Rights Act, enacted in 2003, guarantees the rights of all children in Nigeria, noting that every child has the right to freedom from discrimination. Consequently, it is a crime to disinherit a child from the father’s estate.
She expressed optimism that the menace would be reduced once the state government published the VAPP Law, as she also recommended survivors pursue justice because non-governmental organizations are available to help them.
This story was supported by African Women in Media, as part of the Reporting Violence Against Women and Girls Initiative.