In Spite of the intensified global campaign for equal rights, women in Nigeria are still victims of certain customary and cultural practices which deny them fundamental human rights
| By Maureen Chigbo | Mar. 18, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IT IS a test case of endurance, determination and perseverance in her quest for justice as well as stop her brother-in-law from abusing her fundamental human rights and the economic and psychological violence he inflicted on her. Imelda Ozokwere’s travails started when she lost her husband 29 years ago.
Ozokwere from Amihie village in Orsu-Ihiteukwa, Orsu LGA of Imo State married Cyprian Ozokwere of blessed memory in 1975 after the fulfilment of all traditional marriage rites. As a young, vivacious teacher, Imelda also had a high society wedding with late Cyprian, a teacher turned-business man. They had blissful relationship until his death when her ordeal started with her husband’s brother, Alex Ozokwere, a catholic Knight of St John.
When her husband was alive, the only problem they had was childlessness. Because of this, her husband was prevailed upon by relatives to marry another woman. But this act did not stop the harmonious relationship between Imelda and her husband. In fact, Cyprian respected her and provided for her every need as well as made her a partner in all his business dealings.
But tragedy stuck in 1983 when Cyprian died untimely and his brother confiscated all his property without any form of consideration for the widows his brother left behind. A petition Imelda sent to Hilary Okeke, the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese, revealed the brutality and the extent of his brother-in-law’s inhumanity towards her. The petition dated May 20, 2011, stated that Imelda’s husband died intestate and that her brother-in-law cunningly took her to the Probate Office of the Enugu High Court to process letters of administration. The letters were granted to her as the widow/principal; her brother-in-law, Alex, and her father-in-law. “He took the original and I thought that I was dealing with a genuine and God fearing Christian. I was dead wrong. After this, my life turned upside down. Alex seized all my late husband’s assets,” Imelda said.
According to her, “The most painful thing is that after my husband’s death, he took all the household properties and rented out our flat without my consent and knowledge. Alex also drove away Scholastica, the second widow with her baby girl. “Initially, he confined me to one last room in our village house, and presently, I am totally banned from entering the village house and compound. He and his family are the sole occupants of our village house. He first accused me of bringing thieves into the compound. That gave rise to him changing the door and the gate keys just to deny me access. I now see the gate of my house but cannot enter inside. If I die now, he will not allow my corpse to be brought in and buried in my late husband’s compound,” Imelda lamented.
“Alex has been threatening my life, and has invested his time and money to make sure that I die without any child. I wonder what he will gain by seeing the lineage of his senior brother, who lifted him to an enviable height, closed. I made efforts to see that his lineage continues, but each effort had been thwarted by Alex,” she said appealing to Okeke to intervene to save her from Alex.
Some other atrocities Alex meted out on the lady included locking her up at the police cell because she tried to marry a wife according to Igbo custom and tradition, who will bear children to sustain the linage of her husband. He also tried to prevent her from adopting a child. Her tenuous situation prompted Imelda to ask in the letter to the bishop: “Do I have any fundamental human right? A Knight of St John of the Catholic Church, out of greed and avarice, has claimed that he is marrying more than one wife. This ceremony is archaic, and I have not witnessed one. Does nkuchi marriage involve sexual relationship and taking care of the woman, or denying her of her late husband’s estate? His membership of the Knighthood should be reviewed.”
Imelda has carried her battle for justice far and near, petitioning many human rights and non-governmental organisations, the wife of the Anambra state governor and the Catholic Knights of St John. In 2012, her deplorable case attracted the attention Maureen Chigbo, former general editor of Newswatch, who promptly sent a reporter to investigate the story. When Newswatch got to Imelda in Ihiala, on Saturday, July 16, 2012, for an interview, her pitiable condition shocked the senses out of the reporter. Her home in Ihiala looked like a hovel and Imelda looked sallow; a shadow of her former self – a lovely pretty woman that was captured in a photographic image when she was living with her husband.
Newswatch wrote: “Her impoverished life did not stem from the failure of her husband to provide for her. In fact, he left enough inheritance in landed property, cars and wares to make her have a comfortable living. But all these were allegedly appropriated by Alex who devised an ingenious way to alienate her from her husband’s wealth. Assets left behind by her late husband were made up of a three- storey building of eight flats at 16, Ichida Street, MCC, Onitsha, three big sheds/stores at the Onitsha Main Market and two empty plots of land that comprised a double and single plots, one of which is 7, Anyaeji Omenwa St, Nkpor, near Borromeo.
Others were a house in Lilu that was fully furnished to taste, household properties in the flat they occupied at 16 Ichida St, a 505 saloon car, judgement debt of millions of Naira, in favour of Ozokwere Brothers Foundation Enterprise and share ownership in Ozokwere Brothers Foundation Enterprises, a company floated by the late Cyprian with Alex and Imelda as part of the shareholders.
The story put the heat on Alex and prompted the Catholic Knight of St. John to look into the matter seriously. When Alex saw that the matter was not going his way he tried to preempt the Knights. Consequently, Knights of St. John International Commandery 43B of the Most Holy Trinity, Onitsha, in a letter dated February 16, 2013, suspended Alex. The letter referred to the decision of the disciplinary committee of the Commandery, which was adopted by its Board of Trustees after exhaustive deliberations of the case brought against Alex by Imelda Ozokwere, his brother’s wife, and recommended that the rights of the woman be restored.
The recommendations are that Alex should recognise Imelda as her late brother’s legitimate wife because she was properly married in both the church and in accordance with the Act and was never divorced by your late brother as documents available have clearly shown, including letters of administration of his estate. The letter, which is in possession of Realnews, recommended that Alex should make available to her an equal share of the judgement debt of $186,990 in favour of Ozokwere Foundation Enterprises against First bank Plc.
The letter which was signed by Major Donatus Mgbakogu, president and Major Jude Ugbana, secretary and copied to grand president of the Knight of St John, its spiritual adviser and Imelda, said that in the alternative, Alex should show clear evidence that the matter is still pending in the courts. The letter also said that Alex should surrender four flats out of eight at 16 Ichida Street, Onitsha to Imelda and also concede to her one plot of land and a shade at the Main Market, Onitsha, as her share of the properties of Ozokwere Foundation Enterprises.
The knights also asked Alex to vacate the country home of his late brother to his widow and seek alternative route to the building being put up by him behind the bungalow. “This is necessary because your countenance throughout the deliberations showed clearly that you can’t live peacefully together”, the letter stated. The Knights also asked Alex to recognise Imelda’s adopted child – Master Ozokwere junior, since the child was properly adopted as supporting documents clearly show. “Your blatant refusal to accept any of the recommendations of the Commandery’s Board of Trustees, coupled with sending the case to the Grand President even before the Commandery has taken any definite decision, made nonsense of the enormous efforts expended by the Commandery in amicably resolving the matter. The Commandery has therefore decided to place you on an indefinite suspension pending the review the Grand Commandery promised several months ago”, the letter said.
The latest development in Imelda’s fight for justice is heart-warming but it is still far from the justice she needs to provide a livelihood for her family. No one knows when the Grand president of the Knight of St John will take action to remedy her situation. But her travail represents the kind of violence many women especially widows go through in our society. The violence is still going on despite all the plans of action taken at various women conferences to end violence and discrimination against women.
The most celebrated plan of action in the country is that of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995. This was followed-up by a one- year campaign to eliminate violence against women. Almost 17 years after the campaign which raised the level of society’s awareness of the dangers of violence against women, the perpetration of various acts of violence is very much on the increase in the society. Such acts range from rape of women especially minors, to domestic violence and wife battery, discrimination in offices, psychological, religious and culture-induced violence like denial of inheritance and ownership of land rights as shown vividly in the case of Imelda.
The spate of violence is made worse as law enforcement officers do not see the need to tackle to the problem by enforcing the law especially in the case of rape and wife battery. There is even an archaic law in Nigeria which encourages wife battery.
Perhaps, the spate of violence against women in the society prompted former President Olusegun Obasanjo to ask a pertinent question at a recent regional summit on women and youth in the promotion of cultural security and development in Africa. “Should we continue to uphold the culture that says women have no share in their parents’ and husbands’ inheritance? And as we have been told, 70 percent of our foods are provided or produced by women who are landless by our culture and have no access to anything that will help them in production and productivity in their farms”, he asked.
The answer to Obasanjo’s questions on the inappropriateness and violent aspects of certain cultural practices might be hovering in the winds. But according to Ngozi Anyaegbunam, a gender activist and media consultant, who participated in the Beijing conference, the issue of violence against women is multi-faceted and manifests in so many ways, even in churches. Violence comes to the weak. Violence is guaranteed where there is no justice.”
She is not just talking of judicial justice but also the political situation in the country which is also violent and prevents women from participating effectively. Violence is visited on women in every sphere of life even in the movies. One of such movies which depicts the level of violence against women is entitled “Super Woman” which portrayed the major actress as bad and that her only daughter died as a punishment because of her ambitions.
“I felt disgusted when I watched the movie. “Super Woman” is violence on women. I wonder why women actors cannot adjust scripts that portray women badly before accepting to play the role. A woman should not be put on the cross. The woman in the movie was under constant harassment to balance home chores with that of the office, she said, adding: “There are many ways women are held down. Violence in the society is all encompassing. It is perpetrated not just on women but women bear a large chunk of the violence”.
Anyaegbunam is right. Women and girls bear the brunt of violence in the society as it is now common that no day passes without media reports of rape and abuse of girls who are minors by adults and in some cases by their parents. Recently, Gloria Ode, a mother, told an Abuja High Court how Micheal Dimono, 20, a neighbour, lured her six-year-old daughter to his apartment and raped her April 27, 2010. Dimono of Gwaladima village, Lugbe, Abuja, was arraigned December 3, for allegedly raping the girl. He pleaded not guilty and was granted bail.
Also, Edet Etok-Akpan, 42, was quizzed at the headquarters of the Cross River State Police Command for torturing Edidiong, his six-year-old daughter, because a prophetess in his church branded the girl a witch. Edidiong was beaten by her father and locked up in a room with her hands, mouth and face bound for four days without any food before she was timely rescued by neigbhours after she was inadvertently discovered by another girl who went to their veranda to pick up a broom.
Perhaps, the prevalence of violence against women and girls in the society prompted the theme of this year’s March 8, Women’s Day Celebration entitled: “A Promise is a Promise. Time to take Action to end Violence Against Women.” This is why, on that day, many activities and programmes will be examining the progress countries have made to eliminate violence against women. Many women travelled to the United States for a meeting on women at the UN Women, in New York office, to mark the event.
It is heartening to note that in Nigeria, the legislature is attempting to pass a law on violence against persons. If the law is passed and accented to by the President Goodluck Jonathan, among other things, a rapist risks a life imprisonment. Persons convicted of gang rape of a victim shall be liable jointly and severally to a minimum of 20 year’s imprisonment without an option of fine. However, where the offender is 14 years, he shall be liable to a minimum of 12 years without an option of fine.
The lawmakers specified five years or a fine of N100,000 or both for anyone convicted willfully of causing or inflicting physical injury on another person by any means or any substance or object. It was also specified that any person who compels another person by force or threat to engage in any conduct or act of sexual misconduct or otherwise to the detriment of the victim’s physical or psychological well being commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine not exceeding N500,000 or both.
Female circumcision and general mutilation also drew punishment as any person convicted of performing it or engaging someone to carry it out, risks a four-year jail term or a fine not more than N200,000 or both. The provision that a rape victim has the right to terminate pregnancy resulting from rape was rejected by the lawmakers and deleted from the report. The next phase is to seek Senate’s concurrence on the bill before it is sent to President Goodluck Jonathan for his assent.
Abike Dabiri, chairman, House Committee on Diaspora, said while presenting the 51-clause bill recently that it had become expedient for the bill to become law going by the rising cases of violence against persons in the country. When the bill is finally passed, the likes of Imelda will have a legal instrument to fight their cause.