Eleanor Nwadinobi, an NGO executive committee representative of the U.N. for Sub-Saharan Africa, visited Lehigh University on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 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, and had already obtained a degree as a medical doctor. After attending a women’s world conference in 1995 in Beijing, she was asked to start an NGO in Nigeria in an effort to stop the harmful practices being inflicted upon widows in the area she had researched. Nwadinobi, with the help of three other women activists, founded the Widow’s Development Organization, WiDO. “I really stumbled into this,” Nwadinobi said.
After finishing her post-graduate studies in the U.K., Nwadinobi returned to her country of origin, Nigeria, to practice her profession. There, she was exposed to the harmful treatment of widows living in southeast Nigeria, and began conducting research with the help of young graduate students.
Due to the research the students collected, Nwadinobi became aware of the abuse that these widows were suffering, which she referred to as “the three D’s”: defacement, dethronement and dishonorment.
Some of the harmful practices that widows suffered 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 dead husbands’ corpses while being awaken several times in the early hours of the morning; being 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,” Nwadinobi said regarding why the widows were treated this way. “That the women were poisoning their husbands through their cooking.”
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. Members of Nwadinobi’s organization 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 it was something that they had to go through, 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 helped her overcome 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,” Nwadinobi said. “That drive overcomes the fear.”
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, 17 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 efforts are continuing to work on eliminating this practice as well.
Nwadinobi said the real heroes, who have been vital to the outlawing of harmful practices against 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 he or she operates. 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 the problems that they are passionate about solving.
“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,” said Amber Alualu, ’15, who attended the event.
This article will also be featured on Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs website, http://www.lehigh.edu/international/.
Story by Brown and White news writer Mara Kievit, ’13.