In Igbo land, some practices widows experience in line with Igbo culture have been claimed to violate their human rights of women. For instance; wives of kings in some communities must mourn their husbands for seven years before they are buried and another one year after their interment.
Similarly, widows who are not queens were meant to mourn their dead husbands for upwards of between six months and two years during which they would remain in secluded area.
Again, the widows would also not take their bath for upwards of three weeks, after which they would be accompanied at the dead of the night, to a river where they were shaved and then bathed.
During such journeys, people were not supposed to see them as they would be naked since they would swear by the river that they were not responsible for their husband’s death, before the shaving exercise.
Should there be any suspicion that the woman had a hand in the death of her husband, she was usually forced to drink the water used in washing the body of the dead man. She was also expected to only wear black or white attire throughout the duration of the mourning period and all her needs were provided by her neighbours. This situation slightly varies in parts of Igbo land, especially the areas where there are no rivers or streams.
In some communities, when a man dies, the widow is required to marry one of brother-in-laws by force; thereby, generating a lot of emotional tension for the woman.
Other Igbo communities bar women from performing the dust–to-dust ritual on their late husbands because of the fear that by pouring sand into the graves, the widow would still naturally be bound to the late husband and that there could likely be natural consequences for any man that has canal knowledge of the widow.
There are also some reported cases of maltreatment of widows ranging from the denial of rights or privileges, physical assault, seizure of husbands’ properties, both moveable and immoveable. Such maltreatment are however, resolved through the intervention of appropriate authorities like family unions, kindred (Umunna), village councils or town unions, on their merits.
If there are proven cases of couples not living together as a result of protracted quarrels, disputes or divorce before the demise of the men, the widow can be prevented from participating in the burial ceremony of her deceased husband.
It is also the same situation in some cases where the woman is alleged to have committed atrocities and was required to perform some cleansing rituals before being allowed to participate in the burial ceremony her spouse.
Again, there is the issue of oath-taking and covenant. This is when the woman must be under sanction for offences which needed to be addressed. This includes extreme cases, where the woman is accused of being directly or indirectly responsible for her husband’s death, thus requiring the administration of oath to prove her innocence. Widows are led to shrines for covenants, Igbandu, before being allowed to mourn her husband.
They could be made to drink some sizable quantity of water used in bathing the corpse of her deceased husband or by dipping a cola nut into such bath water and chewing same. Alternatively, such widows could be made to embrace her husband’s corpse three times, Ndakpo Ozu.
It is assumed that if the accused is guilty of the allegations leveled against her, she would die within a period of two years of the oath taking but if after two years and the accused did not die, she would be declared innocent and the accusers would compensate him or her, (Nwucha Aru) in accordance with the tradition of the particular town.
Oral history has it that this ugly widowhood practice stemmed from an ugly tradition, which has subsisted till modern times. The practice was forced down the throat of any woman who was suspected to be responsible for her husband’s death.
People invoked the practice to severely punish a woman adjudged to be irresponsible, wayward and disrespectful to her husband and relations or even to the customs and tradition of the community.
The bizarre side of this practice is when, for instance, a man was never seen quarrelling openly with the wife or when the man could go to any length to support his wife but people still claimed that the woman held his late husband spell bound through diabolical means.
The truth is that no man is deemed to have died a natural death because something must be linked with his death.
Additionally, in some communities, widows are made to bath with flood water or water from traditional receptacles or any available dirty water. The story behind this practice is that “the woman’s pride, which is her husband, had been devalued.”
Similarly, widows are not allowed to eat with good plates. They are forced to use disused or disfigured plastic plates that are good enough to feed dogs, to eat. She is not allowed to eat with anybody. The spoon, plate, cup among her other cutleries are different from others.