VAPP and Widows’ Protest in Abuja

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By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi

If there is any sign in recent times that proved beyond reasonable doubt that it is not yet a new dawn for widows in the country, it is the recent news report that some widows with placards of different inscriptions protested in front of the National Assembly over what they described as stigmatization against them due to some cultural practices.

Speaking on behalf of the women, the President of the Widows Support Network, Bibiana Okereafor, said that the stigmatization against widows in Nigeria is getting worse by the day. Despite being an old practice that should have been a thing of the past, it is painful that the widows in some states of the federation are still being denied access to properties and, in some cases, denied access to their own children without any known legal backing. Recently, in Anambra, a young woman was paraded naked after the death of her husband. They accused her of having extra-marital affairs, which they said caused the death of her husband. The lists are endless.

Indeed, as a people, we may quickly lament over this news and possibly condemn in the strongest terms the perceived perpetrators of such evil.  But if we can truly introspect, we can find out without labour that the above account is a sin we must all share in its guilt. No matter how long we live in denial, it remains a sin that cuts across ethnic/tribal diversities and religious inclinations. It predates the nation’s independence and remains nourished till the present time. We have, in one way or the other, violated women’s and children’s rights in the name of culture.

This absurdity persists despite the existence of the Child Rights Act coupled with the fact that on 25 May 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) bill into law. This is after the Senate had, on May 5 2015, passed the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 into law.

Among other provisions, the law prohibits female circumcision or genital mutilation, forceful ejection from the home and harmful widowhood practices. It prohibits abandonment of spouse, children and other dependents without sustenance, battery and harmful traditional practices. The VAPP provides a legislative and legal framework for the prevention of all forms of violence against vulnerable persons, especially women and girls.

The law also prohibits economic abuse, forced isolation and separation from family and friends, substance attacks, depriving persons of their liberty, incest, and indecent exposure, among others. It also intends to eliminate violence in private and public life and provides maximum protection and effective remedies for victims of violence and the punishment of offenders.

Looking at these spiralling provisions, the question that is as important as the law itself is; How far have we fared as a nation in keeping to these laws and their provisions?

While answer(s) to the above question is awaited, facts have also emerged from the referenced protest that the nation urgently needs a higher level of initiative and creativity to address and confront brutal forces against human rights violations in the country and secure the masses while revitalizing the nation’s political, justice, social and economic sectors.

The above revelation becomes more meaningful when one remembers that justice is more of external actions than interior emotions or passions; that it is rendering to each person what is properly his or hers, what is equal, fair and balanced in any relationship. And most importantly, we win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other person.

There is another thing quite closely related to this. The tendency to ignore this call is always high because while many will view it as a dangerous fiction without merit, others may see nothing wrong in those acts describing them as mere cultural practices.

Ironically, from what sociologists are saying, culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion, and morals for which, at best, we live.

This definition, in the opinion of this piece, puts the denial of women’s rights to inheritance of late husband’s property at a direct opposite of culture.

Very instructive; also, one point most people who are hooked onto this act, particularly the violations of widows’ rights, fail to remember is that there is an amazing democracy about death. ‘It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die, and beggars die; rich men die, and poor men die; old people and young people die; death comes to the innocent, and it comes to the guilty- death is an irreducible common denominator of all men’’.

Indeed, it is always easy to observe that something is seriously wrong with our social system, and also very smooth to announce that this human tragedy is happening not by accident but by a programme of planned inequality; but very regrettably, it’s difficult to admit that we are all involved in this alliance for injustice.

To explain this fact, we as a people at different times and places have witnessed widows go through these social pangs and maintain silence.

Curiously, media practitioners have seen culture lately go the wrong way but assumed it’s the right thing; they watched the traditional rulers redefine culture in the image of their actions but viewed it as normal. The practitioners have overtly become more cautious than courageous in their reportage of wicked cultural practices.

This failure of the media to study the cultural failures and inform the masses has, in recent years, resulting in situations where traditional rulers persuaded their subjects to endorse and applaud cultural practices that were harmful to their lives and existence.

Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and faith-based groups, formerly known for educating the masses, no longer see themselves as problem-solvers or watchdogs of society. Rather, they now assume a high ground they do not understand, leaving the masses that initially depended on them confused.

The government has become the greatest culprit of these injustices against widows and other less privileged people by their inability to provide; good health care facilities, accessible and qualitative education, non-funding of social housing, non-availability of minimum wage protection for the widows, no welfare benefits for the poor and vulnerable people, no unemployment protection, no women shelters or adequate child care centres or laws that adequately defend the rights of widows.

To reverse this trend, the most important instrument to achieve this lies in the government’s willingness to fully domesticate and enforce the 1995 Beijing Declaration.

The declaration, among other things, upholds universal human rights and other international human rights instruments, in particular, the convention on the elimination of forms of discrimination against women, the convention on the rights of the child, as well as the declaration on the elimination of violence against women and the declaration on the rights to development. It also ensures the full implementation of the human rights of women and girl children as inalienable, integral and indivisible parts of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It will also be rewarding if our school libraries are equipped with cultural materials so that students can carry out research and get valuable information that will help promote, protect and preserve our cultural objective for posterity.

While the media, the CSOs and faith-based groups are encouraged to speak against injustices, another urgent imperative for the government is to recognize that failure to take care of the widows, orphans and other less privileged will lead to many children being taken to the streets. And as we know, the streets are reputed for breeding all sorts of criminals and other social misfits who constitute the real threats in the forms of armed robbers, thugs, drug abusers, drunkards, prostitutes and all other social ills that give a bad name to society.

Bearing this in mind, our primary concern should be to work out modalities for instituting a reorientation plan that will erase the unpatriotic tendencies in us as well as usher in a robust nation.

If this change of heart is adopted in our society, it will not only herald something new that will help curb this inhuman act against vulnerable people but announces a civil society where justice and love shall reign supreme.

Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Policy) at Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via [email protected]/08032725374

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