Posted on February 1, 2019
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The importance of psychosocial support
Many widows across a majority of sub-Saharan African countries can attest to the cruel treatment received following the death of their spouse. However, recent reports have found that it is a major issue in parts of Nigeria, where 3.5 million of the estimated 258 million widows worldwide reside.[i] In Nigeria, as in many countries across Africa and in the developing world, widows are not sufficiently protected by the law, meaning many of them never receive the inheritance they are rightfully owed. In some parts of Nigerian culture, it is typical for the wealth of the husband to default to his family. This ensues a cycle of dependency, in which the widow, helpless to the power yielded by her in-laws, is left with little other option than to ask for mercy or remain in the clutches of poverty.
If the total degradation that comes with being stripped of one’s own financial autonomy was not enough, within some communities in Nigeria (and other developing countries) exists an intense suspicion of the newly widowed. This is due to the age-old association between widows and witchcraft that prevails. Even if the cause of death was irrefutably natural, the imagery attached to the widow marks her as poison wielding presence, capable of infecting her husband. In some communities, widows are forced to participate in harmful, unsanitary ancient rituals during the mourning period to demonstrate their innocence. A common task is for the widow to drink the water used to clean her deceased husband’s body prior to burial.[ii] Drinking contaminated water can entail all kinds of dire consequences, including contracting diarrheal diseases and other serious illnesses. The devastating effect that partaking in these rituals can have upon these vulnerable women, many of them mothers without the money to pay for urgent medical care, should not be underestimated.
There have been a series of alleged “breakthrough” moments where the Nigerian government have intervened and sought to address this unjust travail. The first being the Marriage Act (1990), where Federal law stipulates that a portion of the husbands assets be given onto the wife. However, there is one deeply significant loophole, being, the law does not apply to those married under religious law (a considerable number of cases). In 2015, in response to outcry over the violence absorbed by widows suspected of witchcraft, the government passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act. However, in a country where abuse against women has been normalised in many parts[iii], unsurprisingly, enforcement is weak. [iv]
In recent years various organisations have stepped up to address the lack of adequate widow support. There are several on the ground in Nigeria and others working across the globe. ACT is proud to be one of them.
In Nigeria, under our “Widows and Orphans” project, widows receive psychosocial as well as entrepreneurial support from monthly meetings where they learn modern business practises to improve their income, profit, purchasing power and accountability. Although significant strides have been made in recent years, the stigma around mental health stretches across the globe. In a time where global concern over physical health dominates, countries across Africa have received much deserved attention regarding pressing physical health threats – most recently, Ebola. However, it is time this same preoccupation and awareness be extended to mental health. Currently, in Nigeria, there is a “treatment gap” of 90% regarding mental health diagnoses[i]. A mere 10% of those with mental health issues are receiving the treatment they so desperately need. [ii] A range of studies over the last few years have established a definite link between mental health sufferers and socio-economic factors such as low income, housing worries and ill health. [iii]The work ACT does to educate children, enrich communities and empower widows is with the precise aim of breaking the cycle of poverty that holds the most vulnerable hostage to this torrent of socio-economic deprivation-induced misfortune. In the case of the widow, this is best encapsulated with the work ACT does to incorporate widow entrepreneurs into “Savings and Loans” co-operatives. After receiving training that has given them both the knowledge and expertise regarding cultivating a savings culture (and after a period of saving), participants are eligible to receive an interest free loan to improve their business. Of the 60 widows who participated in an intensive entrepreneurship training course run in Ayobo Ipaja Community, Nigeria last year, 45% recorded improvements in their businesses. Although mental health issues can affect anyone, regardless of their social standing, there is an increased risk for those coming from low economic backgrounds and where human rights violations have been normalised.[iv]
ACT recognises this and strives to improve the economic situation first and foremost. We are already seeing life-changing results. Read how our empowerment of Collette Ilboudou, a widow from Burkina Faso, transformed her life and improved her mental well-being here
Today, ACT support 1154 widows. However, we want to reach many more.
By 2020, we want widows in all countries we operate in to benefit from the Whole Life Skills Programme.
By 2023, we want to have reached at least 5,000 widows in this way.
We acknowledge these are ambitious aims. However, we believe the plight of the widow across Africa is one that requites immediate and immodest action.
We hope you have been inspired by this blog. If you would like to donate to this cause, please click here to do so.
[i] “World Widows Report” 2015, Loomba Foundation [ii] “Pushing for stronger laws to protect widow’s rights in Nigeria”, Kelechukwu Iruoma [iii] “Why are African women more at risk of violence? Nigeria tells a patriarchal tale” Sede Alonge [iv] Ibid [v] “Why Africa needs to start focusing on the neglected issue of mental health” – The Conversation [vi] Ibid [vii]Ibid [viii] “Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020” World Health Organisation