Forty-something Agnes, from Benue state in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, was married to university lecturer John while still young; the couple had nine children.
One morning in 2008 Agnes rose to hear repeated shouts of “Allahu Akbar [Allah is the greatest]!”
“When you hear that, you know something [terrible] is going to happen,” Agnes told World Watch Monitor.
Extremist Muslims surrounded her neighbourhood. The couple joined others as they tried to flee, but they suddenly found themselves deep in the heart of a Muslim-dominated area.
A man forced Agnes and the younger children into a building; John and their two eldest sons remained outside. Before entering, Agnes saw John and one son being stabbed to death.
“They hit my husband on the head and stabbed him in the side. I witnessed it. As soon as they stabbed them, I closed my eyes and called on Jesus. I couldn’t help myself.”
Agnes’ story is a familiar one to Rebecca Dali, wife of the President of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), to which most of the kidnapped Chibok girls belonged. She runs the Centre for Caring, Empowerment and Peace Initiatives, CCEPI, which serves mainly widows and orphans. She told World Watch Monitor: “Widows are particularly vulnerable in north-east Nigeria, the area most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. For many, the loss of their husband is the beginning of hardship for them and their children, who may not then be able to get an education.
“It’s a big loss, because in most cases, the late husband’s relatives will pack everything up of his to take it away – leaving her alone with her children. If militants have not burned down everything, some families will quickly move her out of the family compound, so she may lose her home, as well as her husband. The late husband’s relatives will also take the farmland, a crucial element of survival in north-east Nigeria, a semi-arid region where living conditions are very hard. Food production is dependent on the rainy season, which lasts 4-5 months per year.
“During our relief distribution, we’ve found some dead men’s relatives collected relief materials on behalf of a widow, but later discovered they never reached her. Added to all this, it’s difficult for a widow to re-marry; even if they are very young, no-one will want to marry them. So they remain alone with their children; some have to send them to beg in the streets to get food,” she said.
“It’s a really terrible situation. We have recorded cases of some widows dying with hyper-tension and other related diseases. We recently found four cases of women showing severe signs of trauma. One of them became dumb and blind. The other three went completely mad, and their children – who try to look after them – even have to resort to chaining them up.
“There are real abuses against women, particularly in the north-east, where the literacy rate is very low. Even in the Church, widows suffer lots of segregations. It’s a combination of cultural and religious beliefs reinforced by widespread poverty.”
It is against this backdrop that Christian widows feel even more unfairly treated when they see a state-sponsored mass-wedding programme for Muslim women at government expense. In July, in the northern state of Kano, which has the highest divorce rate in Nigeria, more than 10,000 women registered to be provided with a husband.
This match-making programme began in 2012; Kano state said that it spent an average of about 250,000 Naira (about $780) per couple – to buy furniture, textiles, food and other essential items, as well as to provide grants for the brides.
This scheme, says Rebecca Dali, is a reminder of the persistent discrimination faced by Christians in northern Nigeria.
“I am originally from Borno State. Even when I was young, if you graduated with Muslim classmates, they would easily get hired – while Christian graduates would end up unemployed,” she said.
“So there’s nothing new. I really feel bad because they are using public funds to promote their own religion. Here in CCEPI we used to write letters to denounce such discrimination. But our plight is not going away, and some people even threaten to kill us if we do not keep quiet.”
Agnes was eventually able to attend a workshop on healing from trauma, organised by Open Doors International, a charity which supports Christians under pressure for their faith. She also received vocational training, and a microloan. Open Doors is also funding the school fees for her youngest child.
However, a few years after her husband’s death, another extremist attack hit her town. This time everything she had in her small store was destroyed.
“Why would they do such a thing to you?” people asked her. She responded: “I thank God that I have something that people can steal. I am grateful to Him, that He will not leave me.”