Her husband died. Then his family shaved her head and made her strip beside his grave
Updated 6:11 AM ET, Fri March 27, 2020
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Lagos, Nigeria — For many years, Rose's clothing store was the destination of choice for Lagos women in search of a new outfit for a party or occasion.
She traveled regularly to textile hubs in Turkey to source high-quality fabrics for her clients and her children helped out in the family business on busy days during December festivities.
The small store in Oshodi -- in the heart of the bustling Nigerian city -- did a booming trade until personal tragedy struck the businesswoman in 2015.
Doctors diagnosed Rose's husband with chronic kidney failure that eventually led to his death two years later at the age of 55.
The illness -- in a country where 4% of the 195-million strong population have access to health insurance -- drained the family's finances.
"I sold everything in my shop, undervalue, to get money for his weekly dialysis," Rose, 45, told CNN.
But the financial challenge she faced while caring for her sick husband was dwarfed, she says, by what she encountered after his death in 2017.
Following his burial in southern Nigeria, Rose says she was forced by her in-laws to undergo a series of rituals that included shaving her head, pubic hair, and stripping near her husband's grave.
When she initially refused, Rose says they told her that she and her children would be banished from the local community in Delta State, where her husband was to be buried.
"I never wanted to go through that process, but when I asked them what if I don't do it, they said it [her refusal] means I killed my husband," she said, speaking to CNN.
In parts of southern Nigeria, widows like Rose are subjected to a set of practices after their husband dies. They can be kept in seclusion for weeks, deprived of meals and made to live in unhygienic conditions.
They are viewed as "unclean" and in need of cleansing rituals that can include shaving body hair and forcing them to marry a man related to their deceased husband, according to women's rights groups and researchers.
In some cases where the husband has died young, the wife sometimes becomes a suspect in his death and she might be forced to drink the water used in bathing his corpse or lie with his remains to prove her innocence, according to researchers in a 2015 paper published by the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.
Those who refuse are often accused of killing their husbands and expelled from their communities.
It's been three years since Rose's husband died, but her voice still shakes as she recounts the details of the rituals.
Speaking in her Lagos apartment, Rose says she was confined to a room at the back of her in-laws' house for two weeks.
"They threw food at me as if I am a dog ... nobody had any physical contact with me because anything I touch is unclean," she said.
"They woke me up at 2 a.m. and told me to start crying around my husband's grave. They said I should scream louder and until my cry wakes the community."
A day before she concluded the rites, Rose says elderly widows visited her.
"They asked me to shave my pubic hair, my armpit hair, my nails and bring them along the next day when they want to shave my hair," she said.
After that, she says her head was shaved and she was stripped naked.
"They burned everything I was wearing and my hair. Then, they told me to bathe in the same spot. I protested that I could not bathe in broad daylight. They insisted. People were looking at us, we had been there from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I wanted it to end," she said.
The next day, Rose says she was taken to a village gathering, where she was asked to marry one of her husband's siblings or another man from the community.
"They said I should choose a husband in replacement of my late husband. I was shocked ... one of the men said I could choose my son and I did, but most of them were not happy with that option," she says, her gaze fixed on her husband's photograph as she recounted the ordeal.
"I am one of the humiliated widows," she added, rubbing her finger where her wedding band used to sit.
Flora Alatan, Delta State Commissioner for Women Affairs, told CNN her department is working with the justice ministry to adopt the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP), a federal legislation with a provision that directly punishes the ill-treatment of widows.
The "Harmful Widowhood Practices" in the VAPP Act says people can be jailed for a maximum of two years or pay a fine of N500,000 (around $1,366) for abusing women whose husbands have died.
Nigeria signed the VAPP Act in 2015, but a majority of the West African nation's 36 states are yet to adopt it and, consequently, the law can't be enforced in those states.
While she's pushing for the law in her state, social workers from her ministry are also going into communities to encourage women to report such cases, Alatan said.
"We're not just speaking to the women, we are talking to their daughters. The education of the girl child is important if we want to put a stop to these inequalities," Alatan said.
This work is also personal for her.
Alatan's husband died in February and she says her husband's extended family asked her to participate in some traditional rites for widows which she refused to do.
"I am presently mourning my husband and they told me there are some [cultural] or traditional things I must do. I told them that, 'No! I'll not bow to that and they cannot force me to do it.'" Alatan told CNN.
But she admits her experience is not the reality of many women in the country and says that is why the adoption of the bill is urgently needed to put a stop to these practices.
'Great deal of disadvantage'
There are 258 million widows around the world, according to UN estimates, and more than two million of them are in Nigeria, where 25% face a "great deal" of disadvantage and another 33% have experienced disadvantage, according to 2015 World Widows Report by the Loomba Foundation, a global NGO working with the UN to highlight the plight of widows.
CNN has reached out to the office of the Nigerian minister for women affairs but has not received a response.
Hope Nwakwesi, who runs Almanah Hope Foundation, a support group where widows can share their stories safely, says family members who carry out this abuse are hardly ever arrested or prosecuted.
Until the "Harmful Widowhood Practices" provision in the VAPP Act is enforced at the grassroots level, more women will face these forms of violence, she said.
"Government must realize that people hide under the name of culture to get vengeance on women," Nwakwesi said.
"What can be more humiliating than a woman shaving her pubic hair? Why should a woman be termed unclean because your husband is dead?" she asked.
Nwakwesi herself became a widow 25 years ago after her husband was killed in a car accident.
After his death, she was confined to a room for 28 days after which she was asked to shave her head as part of Ikwa Ozu, the mourning rites performed by widows in Anambra state in Nigeria's southeast.
"My head was scraped with a blade, and two days after it was like my head was on fire. I had to be using menthol and pouring ice cold water on my head for three weeks because it was so hot," said Nwakwesi, who is pushing for the practices to be abolished.
On her return to Lagos, Nwakwesi says she and her four children were evicted from the apartment rented to them by her husband's employers.
A few weeks later, she was suspended from the elementary school owned by the same employers, where she worked as a teacher.
"Our house was reallocated to another family. Under three months and at age 27, I went from being a wife to being a widow, with no house, job and with four children to care for," Nwakwesi, now, 52, told CNN.
Nwakwesi said she contemplated suicide at the time.
"It played out in my mind, the day my employers pasted my suspension letter on the school's notice board and as the pressure grew. I was overwhelmed ... I only snapped out of it because of my kids," she told CNN.
She is pushing for stronger laws she says will help "catch a widow when she falls."
"One woman who has just lost her husband cannot fight her in-laws, but if she knows the law will back her up, she will fight back," Nwakwesi told CNN.