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Rights group comes to the rescue of widows

Moved by the rampant disinheritance of widows, a Lagos-based NGO has begun a programme to empower them economically.
Toye Olori

Death is an inevitable end many people are never prepared for. Nigerian women are worst hit when their spouses die, as they are not usually as economically empowered as their male counterparts.
Most often a wife is not carried along by her husband in his business endeavors while most husbands make their brothers next of kin, which enables such brothers to cart away the belongings of the dead husband while the woman is still in mourning irrespective of who bought the items, thereby leaving her and the children with nothing.
In some cultures in Nigeria, widows are made to undergo harsh widowhood rites such as sleeping in the same room with the late husband for days, sleeping on bare floor, seclusion during mourning and being forced to drink the water used to bathe the dead husband to show her innocence.
Worried by the plights of widows in the country, a Lagos-based non governmental organisation - Human Development Initiatives (HDI), has begun a programme to among others, help to empower the vulnerable in the society including widows and street children.
Founded in 1996, HDI is involved in areas such as children's and women's rights, educational development, social and economic development as well as providing free legal and psycho-social services for the vulnerable in the society. It also engages in the economic empowerment of widows through training in small scale businesses and provision of micro-credit loans.
''Under the widows economic empowerment programme which is in its sixth year, we have been able to train many widows in the yearly four-day training workshops and we have given soft loans to some of them. We collaborate with some international organisations such as the ILO, the Ford Foundation and the WHO, which fund most of our programmes,'' explains Ms. Itunuade Adio-Thomas, Media and Public Relations Officer of HDI.
More than 300 widows have benefited from the HDI training programme while 25 of them have been given micro-credits of a maximum of 50,000 naira (about 416 US dollars) since 2,000 when the micro-credit scheme began.
The widows' economic empowerment training programme tagged ''Life Skill Cottage Industry Training Workshop'' (LSCIT) is designed to expose widows to diverse skills and educate them on income generating activities, focusing mainly in the production of tie and dye, soap, cosmetics and confectionaries.
Ms. Omokemi Akinbodunse, HDI Legal Officer, who is also in charge of the Skills Acquisition component, said the women are also taught management of small businesses and book-keeping, to allow them keep good and proper accounts.
The organisation has also set up a widows' trust fund to enable participants make a living from what they are taught at the annual workshop as well as enable other widows in other forms of businesses to boost their trade. The trust fund is a pool of resources put together by friends of the organisation for the purpose of giving soft loans to widows. Beneficiaries are expected to pay back within one year.

Participants in the LSCIT training programme, funded by the United States-based Ford Foundation, were initially drawn from the commercial capital of Nigeria Lagos, but the scope was last year extended to include widows from the six geo-political zones; the North Central, North East, North West, South East, South South and South West.
''We are gradually expanding our training to include participants from other zones. During last year's training programme, we had participants from Delta, Enugu, Imo and Lagos,'' she said.
Rachel Ogunwale, 63, is one of the early beneficiaries of the Life Skill Cottage Industry Training Workshop. Today hers is a success story. Ogunwale, a successful trader before she became a widow in 1995, was left to take care of her four children alone. In 2001, she had to sell off all she had in her shop to take care of a sick daughter-in-law and was almost becoming a destitute before she came in contact with the HDI officials.
''I took part in the four-day training programme in 2001 along with other widows and we were given handouts which the officials said we must study and make good use of. Many people did not take the training seriously but I did and took interest in the tie and dye programme,'' she says.
Immediately after the training and with the little money she had at home, Ogunwale went to the market and bought some metres of white cloth and some dye. ''That was how, I started making and selling tie and dye which is locally called Kampala or “Adire,'' explains the now very successful batik designer.
Because of the quality of the materials she makes, she receives a lot of patronage especially from groups of people for occasions such as wedding, traditional ceremonies etc, where all members are expected to appear in uniform. As a result of this, she often gets contracts to mass-produce materials for important occasions.
She is thinking of taking advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to export her textile abroad herself. ''For now, I make the materials for some business people who sell them in America. I am planning to start making it for export to the United States, where I hear, a lot of African print is now in demand''.
Ogunwale refused to take a loan but other widows who benefitted from the micro-credit loans have been paying back promptly, a sign of their successes in their businesses. A review meeting held recently for beneficiaries, shows that apart from generating more income, the benefiting widows have had marked improvement in their social lives and in other areas of their family life.

Ogunwale was also lucky not to have gone through all the harrowing experiences which some widows go through in the name of culture in Nigeria, but her husband's family blamed her for their brother’s death ''I come from the Yoruba ethnic group in Western Nigeria, so I did not have much widowhood rites to perform like people from some other regions, but I was indoors for 41 days before I was allowed to go out to anywhere. I was also not allowed to wear bright coloured clothes during the mourning period of one year,'' Ogunwale said.

''Initially my husband's people blamed me for his death but they later realised their mistake and apologised to me. But they abandoned me and my four children and since my husband died suddenly without any property we were left with nothing. It was through the help of God and members of my church who donated in cash and materials to keep us alive during the initial stage,'' she added.
But today, Ogunwale is popularly known as ''Mama Kampala'' a mark of her success in the tie and dye business. ''I thank God I am making a lot of money now and I can take care of my family very well. My last child is now an undergraduate. These days, I am invited by groups of women to train them on tie and dye production''.

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