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Decent Burial Please!

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Sunday, February 21st, 2016
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During the glorious days of the Daily Times Group in Nigeria, I got into the habit of reading the Lagos Weekend, the black sheep of The Times’ stable. In those days, many persons who regarded themselves as decent, wouldn’t touch the paper with a pole. But the very reason for which the weekend paper was unpopular among the squeamish, made it compelling to me. The Lagos Weekend carried stories of the sexual escapades of the high and low in the society, as well as sobering details of divorce cases before various customary courts. In particular, the divorce cases served, in my opinion, as a constant reminder that in life, once there is a “welcome” there is bound to be a “goodbye,” somehow, someday. The reports from the courts also taught the sad lesson that love could die at any stage of its growth – infancy, midlife or even much later – but the issue is how it is buried.

The divorce stories were often studies in the most sordid and traumatic ways to end a relationship.  The character assassination both parties usually deployed so lavishly to strengthen their cases would easily turn Shakespeare’s Juliet into Lady Macbeth.  Couples said things and made revelations that could haunt them for the rest of their lives. And if that was the injury, the final pronouncement on dissolution of the marriages was the salt, a travesty and a thwarting of natural justice! At the end of the agonising process, if the woman happened to have been married into an Igbo family, she would be asked to return her bride price to the man. It didn’t matter how long they had been married, and it didn’t matter if she was the wronged party.

Sadly, the practice of asking for the refund of bride price continues to date, without any rational explanation.  Some traditionalists claim that it signifies that the families of the erstwhile couple are no longer in-laws.  Fine, except that it also implies that nothing had changed since the partnership was contracted –nothing at all – the value of the Naira, the man, the woman, their bodies, their minds, and the society!  What about the contributions of the woman to the marriage? How much was all her child bearing and work worth? Besides, it lays undue emphasis on money as though the woman was bought in the first place, and is being asked to purchase her freedom.

If the practice is truly meant to symbolise the relief of traditional obligations of in-laws, and if a ritual is necessary, why can’t it be one that makes more sense, like cutting a rope or breaking a pot? And who says that a dead relationship doesn’t deserve a decent burial?  The customary court system is challenged to come up with any other practice that doesn’t suggest, as it is the case with refund of bride price, that the man has been wronged even when that is not the case. Justice must be seen to be done even in matters of custom and tradition.

The Legal Reforms Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice is doing great work trying to harmonise some aspects of customary, religious and statutory marriage systems. They shouldn’t stop until they are sure that nothing that diminishes women is permitted.

Ada Agina-Ude is a journalist, women’s rights activist and community leader. She is an amazingly young 70 year old grandmother.


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