REDUCING HARMFUL PRACTICES OF WOMEN IN SOUTHEAST NIGERIA
By Mara Kievit ’13
Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi, an NGO Executive Committee representative for Sub-Saharan Africa, visited Lehigh on Tuesday to deliver a lecture about the work she has done to reduce the harmful, traditional practices used on women in southeast Nigeria.
Nwadinobi became an activist in 1994, though she had already obtained a degree as a medical doctor. After attending a woman’s world conference in 1995 in Beijing, she was asked to start an NGO in Nigeria in an effort to stop the harmful practices on women widows in the area she had researched. Nwadinobi, with the help of three other women activists, founded Widow’s Development Organization (WIDO).
“I really stumbled into this,” Nwadinobi said. After finishing her post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom, Nwadinobi returned to her country of origin, Nigeria, to practice her profession. Nwadinobi was exposed to the harmful treatment of women widows living in the southeast of Nigeria, and began conducting research with the help of young graduate students.
From the research the students conducted, Nwadinobi became aware of the abuse that these widows were suffering, in which she referred to as “the three D’s”: defacement, dethronement and dishonorment. Some of the harmful practices that women widows were suffering in Nigeria included having their heads shaven, usually with a rigid sharp object such as a broken glass soda bottle; being forced to sleep with their husbands’ dead corpses while being woken up several times in the early hours of the morning, forced to cry loudly for the entire village to hear; and drinking the water that was used to clean their husbands’ dead bodies.
“They [the village community] were blaming the women for their husbands’ deaths, that the women were poisoning their husbands through their cooking,” Nwadinobi said in regards to why the widows were treated this way. In reality, many of these men were dying of “unknown diseases,” usually linked to HIV and AIDS.
Nwadinobi said after she collected the research on the harmful practices these women were suffering, she knew it was not enough to allow it to only become a statistic. They began entering the villages and asking widows what they had gone through when their husbands died and how they felt about the treatment.
Nwadinobi said some women said it was their culture and they knew they had to go through it, but most women broke down and cried when discussing their sufferings.
Nwadinobi continued to act as an activist for these women despite the many warnings about the issue being taboo. Nwadinobi said there was always fear in the line of work she was doing, but her passions to do what was right for these women overcame the fear.
“If it is an issue that constantly burdens you, you go to bed wanting to make a change and you wake up wanting to make a change, that drive overcomes the fear,” Nwadinobi said.
Nwadinobi said they purposely named their organization WIDO. “Even in mentioning the acronym of our organization, that taboo word would be spoken,” she said.
Six years after WIDO was founded, the law passed on International Women’s Day (March 8), to outlaw the harmful practices against women in southeast Nigeria. Nwadinobi said now, seventeen years later, women are no longer asked to sleep with their husbands’ corpses or drink the used water. Women’s heads are still being shaved, however, but they are continuing to work on eliminating this practice as well.
Nwadinobi said the real heroes who have been key to outlawing the harmful practices of women in Nigeria are the women who spoke out about their sufferings and helped WIDO take action to stop it.
“Indeed, they are the heroines, those that have the courage to report what is going on,” Nwadinobi said.
Nwadinobi said the essence of the message she would like to pass on is each person can make an impact within the circle of influence in which they operate. She said she believes there is an element of activism in everyone, and the world would be a much better place if all people joined together to solve problems they are passionate about solving.
Amber Alualu (’15), who attended the event, said, “I’m just grateful that there is this exposure, and we are exposed to things like this that are happening around the world that most people aren’t exposed to.”