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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CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series.

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.

Deprivation, seclusion

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.
Rose's head is shaved by women in the village, in 2017. Rose's face has been obscured to protect her identity.
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 w