A romance with poverty is an intriguing and debilitating experience. It’s a romance that could either generate the humorous or bring one to a vegetative state. I’m talking about material poverty, inability to survive on your own without dependence on kinship or the state. In such a state, your ability for independent choices is dependent on your inner wealth and strength. But that isn’t what is common among women in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. Demographic studies have highlighted the cultural subjugation of some of these women, many of who are neither heard nor seen.
They are behind-the-scene attendants, with their needs dictated to and provided for by others. It was news last year when Kano State Government organized a mass wedding ceremony for about 100 widows and divorcees in the state. It smacked of a carnival. One would have thought that perhaps the women and men so married had chosen themselves, but lacked the financial resources for a ceremony. After all, mass weddings are widespread in Nigeria. The churches do it, so why can’t the state governments do it as poverty-alleviation projects? The difference lies not in the conduct of the ceremony by external parties like church or government, but in the decision of the marrying parties.
Vanguard Newspaper of January 5, 2013 published Zamfara State Government’s announcement of plans to find husbands for about 2000 widows as a means of curtailing the rising numbers. I read the news and began to wonder what underlines this act of charity. As I read the online comments that followed the publication, I found that to be more intriguing than the news report itself. One of the most worrisome questions that emerged was “How did this large number of women become widows?” In trying to wrap my head around this, another post gave suggestion as to possibilities, suggesting that many of them may have been wives to late terrorists who have been killed within the last three years following the intensification of attacks by state security agents. That might be over-generalizing as the attacks have been more in the North East and not the North West where Zamfara State is. But, with the possible homogenous nature of the North, who says a widow in the North East cannot relocate, with clandestine state assistance, to the North West for purpose of swelling up their ranks and justifying the allocation of financial resources? Nigeria is a land of absurd possibilities. Nevertheless, if that line of reasoning is valid, then we are having a situation of indirect state-financed terrorism in the country. But I will let the state intelligence agencies do their work.
Now, back to the marriage arrangements; I’m wondering where the husbands will be sourced from. Will they be sourced from within and outside the state? Or will the search extend to outside the country to neighbouring Niger Republic and even up to Libya and other North African countries? Inter-marriage between northern Nigerians and citizens of Northern African countries is common and with the large number of women involved in this case, this wider search might be necessary. Anyway, come to think of it, only 500 men are needed actually. Since Zamfara is a Sharia state, a man is allowed to marry four wives. So, if the 2000 widows are distributed among 500 men, they would have been adequately taken care of. That will, however, be dependent on the State Government’s ability to source for and find willing single men.
Exploring the above further, there are several other concerns about this arrangement, unanswered questions. What are the qualifications for the husbands – cultural, religious, citizenship, psychological, etc? Are they going to be economically active and independent men? Are they going to be single or widowers? Are they going to be healthy enough such that they don’t die too soon and leave these widows widowed again? Are they going to be given employment to enable them to provide for the new wives? Will the women be given a chance to choose among the assortments of men that are going to be lined up? Have they discussed with the widows their specifications in terms of the kind of man they want? I would expect that in collating information from the widows, they were asked to fill out a form or one was filled out for each of them and in that form, they were asked adequate demographic information as a basis to match appropriate men.
There is another question that stands out. What is in this for the State Government? Is it part of their social security/development arrangements? Is it so difficult for the government to execute interventions that would make these widows economically independent on their own? I want to believe that many of them have children and these children have a right to grow under conditions of appropriate care and provisioning. I know in certain cultural settings a woman is denuded of her humanity to the extent that she is not given a voice to choose her partner or spouse, but should this be accepted as the best solution? As is common in Nigeria, it may not be surprising to find out that these “widows” are really not widows, as it could just be an arrangement to syphon money from the state treasury through some phony means. If the basis for this “project” is to address the perceived deprivation these women are exposed to, then it is hinged on the erroneous assumption that marriage is an empowering institution. In fact, marriage is a subjugating institution, especially when the basis for entering into it is not negotiated in some form.
It is my assumption that many of the said “widows” have children of varied ages and their peculiar needs may not be addressed within a marriage context. It is my reasoned opinion that the needs of many of these children may be addressed through their mother’s economic independence. These children should be situated within the entire project as the most vulnerable group; not the widows. They are vulnerable to all kinds of abuse – physical, moral, sexual, psychological, economic, etc. This is a task for the civil society groups who have a mandate to protect rights of children. There is need to understand the basis and dynamics of this project. If the women have chosen to subject themselves to this experiment, how have they factored the helpless children into the whole arrangement? It is even worrisome that the announcement was made by the Zamfara State Commissioner for Women and Children Affairs, who incidentally is a woman. In a cultural setting characterized by complementarity rather than equality, we are facing a situation where new organic problems are created by trying to solve existing ones.