- Posted by Editor
- On May 6, 2019
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Widow inheritance and child marriage in Urhobo land
By Young Erhiurhoro
Widow inheritance and child marriage are two ravaging social problems rearing their ugly heads today in Urhobo land and even in the Isoko nation too. Though the story is not quite different in other ethnic nations across Nigeria. Yet, it’s very common even in this modern society especially in rural communities in Urhobo land; the seat of Urhobo traditional beliefs and cultural practices.
In the true sense of it, how do we mean by widow inheritance and child marriage? From layman’s understanding and not from the legal or sociological perspective, widow inheritance is a cultural practice whereby at the death of a man which in this case, is being referred to as the husband, his legally married wife or wives are shared or inherited by the late man’s older children or his close family members. This cultural practice is so much cherished by the Urhobo people. In those days in Urhobo land, you can’t be bestowed a chieftaincy title by a traditional ruler except you married more than one wife. Polygamy was encouraged then in Urhobo land by our various traditional institutions. In fact, marrying of many wives was a determinant or attribute of a wealthy man in Urhobo land in ancient times.
On the other hand, child marriage is the traditional practice of giving young girls between the ages of ten and fifteen years in marriage to men that are even old enough to be their fathers or grand fathers. In this case, such little girls could have been bethroted to them when they were still little children or forcefully given to them against their will. This practice was very much predominant in Isoko and Ijaw ethnic nationalities. In my interview with some Urhobo elders, they said child marriage was a borrowed cultural practice mainly from these two Urhobo’s neighbouring ethnic nations of Isoko and Ijaw. Today, child marriage is also deeply rooted in Urhobo land. It’s already part of the Urhobo culture.
Why do we bring up these two social problems at this time? The problems of widow inheritance and child marriage in Urhobo land are becoming enormous everyday; creating different agonies and pains in the hearts of these poor weak vessels as the Bible referred to women. People expected that by this 21st century, such crude cultural practices would have given ways to modern and international practices that are recognized by the Nigerian constitution, the United Nations and the African Union in respect of fundamental human rights . But these two cultural practices are tied down in some parts of Urhobo nation as a result of respect to our culture and traditional beliefs.
However, I want to point out that the upsurge of these social problems in Urhobo land is as a result of sheer ignorance among the people. Secondly, as a result of creating no orientation or awareness to the women folks in the various Urhobo communities by the Delta state ministry of women affairs and social development, Urhobo Progress Union Women Wing and other NGOs in charge of women and children affairs. By this modern times, our women and children especially those in rural communities should be aware of their rights as also responsible citizens of this country. There are different laws and acts protecting the rights of women and girls in modern societies especially against gender inequality and human dignity. In Nigeria and Delta state, we have many of such laws in operation. But the question is that, do our women and girls know these laws? Even the men and some of our traditional leaders, do they respect the rights of women at all?
We must not forget that child marriage is part of the law against child labour. The law against child labour is an international law. It’s applicable in almost every country around the globe. The United Nations and the African Union frown against child labour in its entirety. In those days, many Isoko and Ijaw girls were forcefully married to Urhobo men. What was the cause? This was when witchcraft confession was in vogue. It was believed then that girls were more initiated into witchcraft practice by their own mothers or their mothers’ marriage mates. In such a case, once it was announced that a particular girl was possessed with a witchcraft spirit by either a priest of a deity or a seer, for instance, like the Eni of Uzere in Isoko nation; the only available option for the family of such a girl was to marry her out to any available man outside the village to avoid being burnt alive. The only available place then was Urhobo land. This was how many Isoko and Ijaw girls were married to Urhobo men in those days. (Cited from the book, “Adam, The Evangelist” by Michael Young Nabofa, a Professor of Religious Studies of blessed memory.) It was even a saying in Urhobo that, any Urhobo wealthy man must trace his maternal ancestry to Isoko or Ijaw communities. This child marriage was so much common in the Western Urhobo communities that share common boundaries with Isoko and Ijaw communities.
In the same way, widow inheritance was legalized by traditional laws in many Urhobo communities. Today, a visit to some of these Urhobo communities will definitely reveal what these poor widows are passing through in their lives everyday. Many will be forced to marry men from their late husband’s family against their will and choice. Stories abound where widows were forced to drink water used to bathe their dead husbands just because the woman was suspected to have hand in the death of the man. In other instances, women are regarded as men’s properties according to Urhobo culture. Once a man was able to pay his wife’s bride price, the Urhobos take the wife as one of the man’s landed properties. Therefore, at the death of the man, the wife must be shared along his other properties. Though it’s recognized by corporate law to inherit properties of the dead by his or her children, privies or family members but it’s outright against the law to share widows for children or family members of the deceased. To make matters worse, if the widow refuses to marry one of the children (not her own children in this case) or from the family members, she may be subjected to a kind of deprivation or subjugation in the family or the elders of the family may invoke ancestral punishment on her. If such a woman is still in her prime, it will be difficult for her to re-marry in that same community because the family of the dead husband still have the right to sue such a man who would marry their wife. Such women out of frustrations were forced to travel with their children to distant places where their identities were not too known. In such places, they can re-marry to other men. It was a taboo in the land of Urhobo for such women to return to their communities. Except she was not from the same community from her dead husband. But even in such circumstances, the woman would also be the talk of the town and she could be used to compose dirges during cultural festivals in the community in order to serve as deterrent to other married women.
However, the only option or freedom available to such widows in those days was that, if the woman refused to marry from the dead man’s children or his family members, she would decide to marry her own biological children. In such situation, she can’t physically marry another man again. She will be perpetually tied down to take care of only her children in the family house until she dies. She would still be recognized as a member of the dead man’s family. A second option is for the family of the widow to refund the bride price to the family of the dead husband. This is an acceptable cultural practice among the Urhobo people. Once this is done, the woman is free to pack back to her family compound. She is also free to re-marry to any man of her choice in that same community or to other places. Ancestral nemesis will not fight against her again. Today, there are women that have the urge and interest to re-marry after their husbands’ death but were deprived because of harsh cultural practices. Some of those women are now old and past the age of marriage.
Therefore, my message to Urhobo people in order to fight these two social problems from our various communities is that, our traditional rulers should try as much as possible to obey the constitution of the country. The constitution binds on them as the chief custodians of the people. They should know that widow inheritance that is not freely accepted by the widow herself is against women’s rights. In the same way, they should not forget that child marriage is part of child labour and must not be encouraged in their domains. Secondly, Delta state ministry of women affairs and social development and other international agencies should frequently organize public enlightenment campaigns in the various communities across Urhobo land, educating these women on their rights. Like what I pointed out earlier in this discourse, ignorance is truly a disease that only the right knowledge can cure. Many of our traditional leaders including these poor widows and young girls are not even aware of the existence of these laws we are talking about. Therefore, it’s the core responsibilities of these bodies to teach these people about their rights. They should expose them to those laws that their leaders are hiding from them. Thirdly, the National Assembly and the Delta State House of Assembly should promulgate more laws to protect the rights of mothers, wives and our daughters. They should also make these laws enforceable to the police and law courts whenever they are trespassed. Fourthly, the Women Wing of the Urhobo Progress Union should be more active in protecting the rights of their fellow Urhobo women. I believe this is the major reason why the women wing is established in the UPU. They should also embark on enlightenment campaigns against widow inheritance and child marriage across all the kingdoms in Urhobo land.
Conclusively, the subject of widow inheritance and child marriage is a very wide one which we can’t just treat with only few words. But as wide as it’s, we must equally do a little justice to it in order to open the understanding of people to their predicaments especially among Urhobo women. I want to conclude this short piece by again appealing to our state government to do the needful at this material time when these two social problems are not yet beyond control. Our traditional rulers should also try to review some of these Urhobo cultural practices and traditional beliefs especially in these two areas of our discussion. Like what the late literary sage, Professor Chinua Achebe said in his novel, “Things Fall Apart” that our traditional rulers are the voices of the gods and the ancestors. If this is true, I strongly believe that our royal fathers are in a better position to amend or review these traditional beliefs and practices in order to create peace, harmony and human dignity among Urhobo women. Let us restore the pride and dignity of womanhood in Urhobo nation!
Young Erhiurhoro;Kjc is a reporter and a member of the Urhobo Historical Society