Josephine Nzerem

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
This description of Josephine Nzerem's work was prepared when Josephine Nzerem was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Josephine Nzerem is protecting the social and economic rights of women, especially widows, by encouraging men to acknowledge and provide for their wives' rights to own and inherit property.

The New Idea

In Nigeria, as in other countries deeply rooted in patriarchal norms, women face numerous obstacles to gaining independence and even enjoying basic rights as citizens. Josephine sees that Nigerian women can accelerate the process of changing traditions that limit their roles as individuals, wives, and mothers by actively involving men in the change process. In this way she is neutralizing much of the hostility that women face from men on highly sensitive cultural and traditional issues like widowhood. She believes that if men truly understand the dire predicament of many women, they will become active and willing participants in the quest for women's liberation.
Her idea is simple and powerful. In the communities in which she works, she presents men with the problems of widows and their children. Enabling men for the first time to see the problems through the eyes of their wives and other women in the community, Josephine then begins a dialogue that focuses on devising solutions to a few concrete dilemmas like how to provide for transfer of property after the death of a husband. She argues that the problem of widows and children would not exist in the first place if the men took steps to provide for their families in the event of their death. In Nigeria, Josephine's efforts mark the first time anyone has effectively engaged men in addressing the oppression of women. The traditional approach has been women championing women's rights in ways that inspire stiff opposition from men. Josephine is spreading her ideas through Rotary chapters and church and village associations across Nigeria.

The Problem

In most Nigerian villages and communities, widows and children whose fathers have died do not customarily inherit property. Instead, property typically passes to surviving adult male family members. This often means in practice that widows and their children are subject to the whims of family members who may not even know them well, much less provide for their safety and independence. When women attempt to secure for themselves and their children their husband's estate, they are often accused of complicity in his death and may be forced to undergo a trial in order to "clear themselves." Before she finishes such a process, everything a woman's husband left will be in the possession of other members of the family, thereby plunging her and her children into grinding poverty and forcing her to accept being "inherited" by a male relative. This custom results in crushing and needless poverty, anguish, and loss of dignity. The results are far-reaching and often include children dropping out of school and becoming destitute.

The root causes of this problem lie in the unwillingness and failure of Nigerian men–including the well-educated and established elite among them–to consider and take charge of what will happen to their families after they die. They tend to hang on to the myth that their extended families will care for their children. As a result, they do not bother to take measures that protect their spouses: writing a will, purchasing property jointly with their wives, and taking out insurance policies. To the contrary, many Nigerian men believe that if they take these protective measures, their wives will try to kill them to inherit their possessions. Most name their brothers or uncles as their next of kin rather than their wives.

To ease the suffering of widows and their children, many development organizations have set up support networks and microcredit opportunities and have tried to influence legislation against practices harmful to widows. While these efforts have gone a long way to help ease the suffering of some widows, they address the after-effects and not the root cause of the problem. If this problem is not solved, Nigeria will continue to experience grinding poverty, destitution, illiteracy, and crime–often the only options left for widows and their children.

The Strategy

Josephine began her initiative in the traditional pattern of addressing the immediate needs of food, clothing, and employment for widows. After about a year of doing this, she saw that it was making only marginal differences in the lives of a few women and their children. And the numbers of new widows in her group were increasing, facing exactly the same problems. By talking to the women, it became increasingly obvious that most of the problems faced by the women were a direct result of their spouses' failure to anticipate and provide for them in the event of their death. Josephine decided that the only way to solve this problem was to tackle it at the roots, to teach men the importance–and the mechanics–of making such provisions for their families.

The first few meetings she held with the men of the communities of Lagos were a disaster. The men were totally opposed to the idea of being told to leave wills and actually accused her of instigating their wives to kill them. Shaken by the vicious opposition to her idea, Josephine decided to return to the drawing board and find a more effective way to address the men. She realized that it would be a lot easier for the men to accept her message if they heard it from other men instead of from her, and she solicited the help of her husband and other sympathetic men. Having recruited enough volunteers, she organized another meeting with a men's group, where her husband, who is a lawyer, and other volunteers delivered a talk. After evaluating the audience's reaction, Josephine felt that while it was not as hostile as when she conducted the meeting herself, the audience was still not as receptive as she wanted it to be. She felt that what was missing was an icebreaker that would frame serious, constructive discussions. To meet this need, she put together a play depicting the pathetic true-life story of a widow she knew. Before any discussions on the issues begin, the play, which Josephine writes and directs, sobers the men and reduces tensions. After the play, one of the volunteer men takes up the issue of what men can do to stop the custom that is so harmful to widows.

On average, about 30 men at a time attend her workshop and discussion groups. Importantly, Josephine and her team help men step through the process of drafting wills that provide for the transfer of their property to their wives in the event of their death. To date, she has trained over 50 groups and over 1,500 men. At the end of every meeting, participants complete questionnaires, provide feedback, and express their opinions on the topic and the workshop. She is constantly evaluating the reaction of the audience to the play and the seminar to see what areas of improvement are needed.

Josephine has effectively used the local networks, her board members, the media, and friends to support her programs. She has been able to raise funds both from local companies and from international organizations.

In addition, she continues to aid widows and provide them with life skills that enable them to regain their confidence. She and her team provide psychological counseling and raise funds to meet immediate needs of food, healthcare, and shelter.

Josephine now works with several churches, chapters of the Rotary Club, and residents and village associations in Lagos. She has so far reached about 80 percent of the resident associations in Festac, a district of Lagos, 40 percent of village associations, six Rotary districts, and all the Catholic and Anglican churches in Festac and its environs. She has asked the Nigerian Army to allow her to conduct workshops among the ranks.

The Person

Josephine came from a sheltered family background that did not expose her to the harsher side of Nigerian life. She graduated from the University of Ife in 1994 with a focus on theatre and arts management. In school, she was exposed to all aspects of business management.

After graduating, she performed her National Service at the National Arts Theatre, in the management department, where she was in charge of bookings and theatre design. Afterwards, she tried hard to get a job, but because she had recently married, no one wanted to hire her for fear that she would be going on maternity leave. Eventually, she decided to start a bakery. Her business was successful, and soon she started to supply banks and other organizations with pastries. One day she came across an eight-year-old boy bricklayer. Upon inquires, she discovered that the boy's father had died and his relatives had taken away all possessions from his mother, forcing the boy to earn a living. While this incident touched her profoundly, it was not until 1998, when she came across a woman who had lost her husband and with him everything else–including her children–that she decided to do something about this common problem among Nigerians.


Featured in Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, by Bev Schwartz (2012)