Hope Ifeyinwa Nwakwesi is the founder of Almanah Hope, a non-governmental organisation focused on lending a helping hand and giving a new lease of life to Nigerian widows. Though she was widowed early in her marriage, the educational supervisor, author, radio presenter and social entrepreneur, was never deterred in her life’s course. Joining the rest of the world to celebrate this year’s International Widows’ Day, she launched Nigeria’s first Widows’ Database, which seeks to accommodate Nigerian widows, especially those in the rural areas. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about the widows’ protection bill, ending harmful practices against widows and why men must begin to take family planning and will writing more seriously.
You recently organised an event in Nigeria to mark the International Widows Day (IWD), how did it go?
It went well. We had Her Excellency, Dr Aisha Buhari as the Special Guest of Honor, with the Minister of Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen, as the host. We also had notable speakers such as the UN Women Country Representative, Comfort Lamptey, the media and other notable stakeholders and speakers. Pauline Tallen launched the Nigerian Widows Database, as Comfort Lamptey confirmed the parameters required in the data collection. We discussed the need for the widows’ protection bill and the importance of amplifying these issues and works.
Tell us about the database, how would that benefit widows?
The Nigeria widows’ database initiative came up during this pandemic. As we all know, the effects of the lockdown affected so many especially widows whose source of income are predominantly from daily sales. I have many widows on my phone, seeking for assistance even from other states. I remember seeing some government agencies on Twitter talking about their palliative actions and I asked for help for my widows, but they didn’t respond to me. I then realised that there’s a need to help ourselves using data so that widows in the rural areas can also benefit. We contacted Women Radio to partner with us as we set out to start the data collection.
One fundamental challenge during the distribution of palliatives was a clear absence of a comprehensive database, including a database for widows in Nigeria. A database will go a long way in direct Federal Government intervention through the Ministry and in the appropriate channeling of much-needed resources to target programmes, demographics and households, thus directly improving the welfare of widows. It will help commissioners and local councils create localised programmes on skill acquisitions and empowerment. Having a database will in time, help widows seek for their own rights from relevant authorities knowing that they will have no excuse of not knowing how to reach them. A demographic database will also help attract international bodies with programmes and facilities as they can easily and directly access them from the data. The psychological effect of being counted is an antidote of the long experience ‘sin of omission.’
How did you get into fighting for the rights of Nigerian widows?
I was widowed young with four young kids between the ages of 4 and eight. It was a painful experience as I had to battle at every side; from harmful cultural practices (though my rites were the basic as the human factor was excluded off mine as I had my liberal and literate in-laws which shunned the vindictive ones) to the social issues. As a widow, my experience was traumatic and a long one. One month after I buried my police officer husband, I came back from the village to the barracks to meet a letter ejecting my children and me from the barracks. Three months later, I went to my office at a police school where I worked as a teacher and saw some people at the notice board. As I went there to see what they were reading, posted on it was my letter of suspension. My legs buckled under me and I fainted. These are just a few examples of the systemic rot that goes on to which millions of women are not speaking about due to fear and shame.
How do we eradicate these harmful practices perpetrated against Nigerian widows?
For last year’s IWD walk, we said we were going to end every widowhood rite that violates women’s dignity; we shared flyers in the streets and markets of Lagos Island and Mainland, Awka and Abuja with our suggested 7 points action which are: Government must pass the law and transmit it to the masses using all channels; Traditional rulers send a letter to every family; use town criers to disseminate the stop order; Religious leaders must talk and preach against these harmful practices; All age-grades meetings must begin to speak against and stop these practices; Schools must inculcate it in the curriculum and enlighten children and youths; Improved media enlightenment and campaign; Posters calling for the end to these practices must be pasted on all women affairs offices, secretariat, Local Government headquarters, primary healthcare and strategic centres; stating it with the place of complaints in English and local languages.
And I add again, organisations, review your CSRs, let your advertising inculcate it; sponsor programmes that address social issues. Imagine a company’s advert and billboards saying, ‘Confiscating a widows property is stealing; report to so and so if you are a victim.’
You have been advocating for the widow’s protection bill, how would this bill protect them?
Yes, Almanah Foundation has prepared and submitted for consideration in the Federal House of Representatives, a bill for an Act to eliminate all forms of repressive cultural practices against widows, provide for the protection of their fundamental human rights and for other matters connected thereto, 2020. This Bill shall be cited as Widows Protection Bill, this is currently in the hand of Hon. Adejoro Adeogun (Akoko South East/South West Federal Constituency), which he promised would be having its first reading in March but was badly affected by the lockdown. I call upon all women and influencers to please partner with us and get this comprehensive protection rights for women passed.
You are also at the forefront of the fight to eliminate violence against women and girls, how far have you gone in that regards?
As a teacher and educational administrator with three daughters and six grandkids, I believe in nipping SGBV in the bud. There’s a subtle downward transmission of these GBV practices from our culture and intentional teaching is required to re-orient our youths. This gave birth to our inter-secondary competition on violence against women and girls in celebration of International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls through the 16 days of activism from which I produced my second book, Message to the Youth.
Schools are made to decorate the entrance with posters depicting the various forms of this violence and students write articles and poems on them. It has been informative and rewarding these past three years but regrettable, as neither the Women Affairs Ministry nor Education Ministry, which I have constantly approached, found it interesting or a need as I continue to spearhead it alone.
Loss of financial power is a major challenge most widows face, how are you helping them surmount this hurdle?
By mentoring them; start at your level, readjust your lifestyle but don’t destroy yourself. Create a ‘financial hub’ by having multiple sources of income, even if it is to sell sachet water. Change accommodation, schools and whatever if you must begin again at your strength. We’ve supported some with cash and others with the loan, but I’m a great advocate of widowhood not being a charity case. So, it’s better to help them to build up themselves from where they are.
Tell us how your widow cooperative club works, how do members benefit?
We have two types; Esusu, where we contribute and each takes and contributes and shares quarterly, yearly or as the need arises. The second is a partnership business we just flagged off in Enugu, an AHCoOps agricultural business where we buy, produce and sell farm products in partnership.
You often say that until widows’ issues become an integral part of all discussions and actions of gender equality, there will be no equity in the equality, why?
My simple answer will be what transpired between two women and myself. First, I met an educated, widely travelled woman I met after church service one day and gave her a copy of my book A Widow’s Window to buy. She pushed it back to me, saying, “Hold it till I know any widow I can give it to.”
The second encounter, I met a woman two years ago in Abuja, a prominent actor, a one-time political head, a great influencer and a personal assistant to another bigger politician. We sat on the same table at the Women Radio Voice of Women award 2018. I gave her an invitation to The Widows Summit we were having that November. She gave me the invite back, saying she’s not a widow; that’s the attitude of women to widows’ issues from churches, social, family circles and so on. Some people think I’m crazy, but after 26 years as an educationist, I’m not. I have even sent a letter to UN Women asking them to first address the ‘sin of omission’ by changing to ‘International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Widows, Women and Girls’ having identified Day of the Girl Child, International Women’s Day and International Widows Day. Removing them on a day they want to address the violation is an exclusion that makes us invisible.
A lot of people have argued that the Ministry of Women Affairs isn’t doing enough for Nigerian women, what’s your take on that?
Yes and No. Yes, because I’m personally yet to see or hear of a standing project of empowerment to girls, women and widows to which any of this group is benefiting from. Judging from my past experiences of having approached them for most of our programmes that are serious GBV issues, their outright unrest, even as we seek the only endorsement, leaves me bewildered. No, because of the singular act of the present honorable minister of Women Affairs this IWD of her endorsement of the Nigeria Widows Database and her promise to ensure their rights are enshrined. The Ministry of Women Affairs needs to wake up and present a preventive, prosecutive and rehabilitative front; not just in their files, but also in the communities. They should start by sponsoring programmes on GBV education on radios in their various states and create posters and billboards on these issues across their local government communities.
Do you think these women can be better empowered and supported through careers as against just teaching them to make soaps, bread and the likes?
I think that skill acquisition is part of career development, but it is the presentation that is the issue. I’m of the school of thought that says our new norm of empowerment of widows and women must be modified to our former vocational and technical education. University education is great, but we can see the massive unemployment and importation of almost everything we use today. We used to have secondary/technical and vocational schools for both women and men, but they’ve all been abandoned. Proper skill training for young women and girls will help her build a career as she perfects her skill, but ad-hoc empowerment training often does not as she’s not fully equipped. We have a Widows and Women Empowerment Program (WaWEp), a project that will take this training to the widows and women to their space, giving them ample opportunity and time to master one skill and build a career of it; which we’ve already submitted to Federal Ministry of Women Affairs.
How do you think the government and private individuals can lend tangible support to widows?
Government should provide a policy to protect her rights, having identified the absence of a legal framework that is targeted at widows. I personally believe that supporting widows is protecting her rights and providing facilities for her to be independent and not be a liability. An educational scholarship/loan for her children, health insurance, SME loans by government, organisations and individuals can help cushion her struggle as she builds herself with less humiliation and abuse.
How can Nigeria end SGBV against women and girls?
We must go back to the basics, starting from family, schools, media and religion. As parents, we must teach our children from infancy that ability is not gendered sensitive. While the physiological differences must be respected and observed accordingly, abilities are both inherent and can be nurtured for both sexes. Schools must have gender-based education as core and extra curriculum and intentional education of SGBV laws. Last year, walking into one of the schools, a teacher approached me and said, ‘you’re Almanah Hope? I just want to say thank you!’ I asked what for and she said, ‘when I was nominated to prepare our students on the competition, I was angry, asking myself what is this one again. But something I observed between my students changed my perception. An argument ensued between students (a boy and a girl); the girl jumped on the boy and grabbed his collar. Raising his fist high, he dropped it and said, “If not because they said beating is violence, I would have given you the beating of your life.’ The competition was to draw, colour and paste on their school entrance the various activities of violence against women and girls. Imagine that young boy absorbing this teaching intermittently; he will grow with a respectable attitude to the female gender. Media must intensify education and information; Religious bodies must begin to preach an end to SGBV on the pulpit and even in Sunday school classes.
If you could change something for Nigerian women, what would that be?
Our cultural perception of women! The patriarchal society aftermath of ‘she’s a women,’ her ability defined in her sexuality.
Where do you draw inspiration from, how do you stay motivated when things aren’t going the way you want?
My inspiration comes from God and life itself. You see, my life did not go as planned, but I had to walk into the unplanned to get a plan. My motivation comes from my experience and my profession. Yes, I told myself that life would not swallow me as I got up to move and at each difficulty; I pause to say if I survived that I will survive this. When things start going wrong and I seem to see myself in the left, I have learned to walk on the right.
What last words do you want to leave with women reading this that have been inspired by you?
Widowhood is in the life evolution of every woman who says, ‘I do.’ Women are strong forces in families, the ‘Umuada or Ndi nyom’ speak up and take actions. Women, be independent in your dependent; love and respect your man, but let not your man be your hands so that his death will not be an amputation of your hands. Mothers, let’s teach our daughters and not just give them working tools, but also make them greater worker before they say, ‘I do.’ Women, keep your hands very busy and be involved in all his doing. Family planning education and will writing campaign should start again especially in our rural communities, making them know they can enjoy sex without producing children. Many children at bereavement are more responsibilities for those left behind. Men, as husbands, plan your home from day one to protect your wife and kids in case God forbid, the unplanned happens. You cannot be too sure that your family will do the right thing, but one thing you can be sure of is that the mother of your kids would take care of them with her life.
Widows, if your in-laws rob you, seek redress legally, but don’t make it your profession; you must face front and take responsibility for your life.