Post-Colonialism, Gender, Customary Injustice: Widows in African Societies

  • Citation: Ewelukwa, Uche U. "Post-colonialism, gender, customary injustice: Widows in African societies." Human rights quarterly24.2 (2002): 424-486.
    • Topics:
    • IR Theories
    • Keywords:
    • Sub-Saharan Africa
    • widow’s rights
    • Nigeria
    • politics of reform
    • customary law

By amending discriminatory laws and practices related to the treatment of widows in Africa, widows can gain new rights based on evolving international human rights standards on equality. In Nigeria, both common law and statutes perpetuate discrimination against widows by subjecting them to dehumanizing treatment. The current laws ignore the deep social changes that have been present in Africa since the onset of colonialism. Due to the piecemeal way in which African legal systems were constructed, patently discriminatory laws are routinely upheld by the courts. This is done despite constitutional provisions espousing the principles of equality and non-discrimination, thereby creating tension between protecting rights and preserving the culture. Generally, Nigerian widows are disinherited and required to observe prescribed, and often humiliating, burial rituals after the death of their husbands. Widows hesitate utilizing the formal justice system because they are afraid of being viewed as greedy and willing to reject long-standing customs. Despite the advances in African human rights, a majority of African women remain disadvantaged due to their reluctance to take on the legality of widely accepted social practices. Customs have begun to change, but only when a traditional ruler has been insistent on change. However an effective reform strategy requires comprehensive changes in both law and societal attitudes, as well as a more concerted effort by the women themselves. In order to stop discriminatory and humiliating practices, African widows must overcome centuries of myth, superstition, and male-shaped ideology by actively combating these injustices alongside proponents of human rights and women’s rights.

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