HARARE, Zimbabwe – When 35-year-old Farai Mpalasa talks about the death of her husband, Charles, you can still hear the pain in her voice. This pain is not only caused by the loss of her partner, but also by the subsequent treatment she received from her in-laws.
When he died in 2006, Charles was the only breadwinner in the family and she had never dealt with the family finances. “He took care of everything and just gave me money for food and other household items,” she explained.
When Charles died, she left all the funeral arrangements to her brother-in-law, handing over her husband’s bank cards and documents to him. Two months later, when she requested tuition fees for her children, she discovered that her brother-in-law had drained all the accounts.
“He took all the money and he said the house and furniture belonged to his brother, as I had never worked a day in my life,” she said. Four months after her husband died, she and her three children, aged 17, 15 and 13, were forced to move out of their home in Chitungwiza, a suburb of Harare. Her brother-in-law now rents out the house.
Since this ordeal, Mpalasa has had to find a job as a live-in domestic worker in Harare. She has sent her children to live with her aunt in the countryside. She says her in-laws have done nothing to assist in taking care of them.
“It is as if we stopped being family after [my husband’s] death,” she says. “My children do not know his family, and they rely on me to take care of them.”
According to Zimbabwe’s latest census, conducted in 2012, the country is home to about 587,000 widows. Stories like Mpalasa’s are quite common, as a recent report by Human Rights Watch revealed. Bethany Brown, the author of the report, confirmed that this issue affects thousands of women from all walks of life.
“This is a problem that touches everyone in Zimbabwe. We talked to women who had their property grabbed in rural and urban areas; widows who were really poor to begin with and were left destitute; and those who were middle class or well off,” Brown said. “When this happens, it spans class, it spans income and it spans the rural-urban divide.”
She related the story of one of the widows she encountered, whose brother-in-law offered to drive her to her husband’s funeral only to confront her in front of all those gathered there: “You are rubbish and you will get nothing. I am taking everything.”
“This boldness is very indicative of the sense of entitlement,” Brown said. This results in many women “not only getting nothing, but feeling like they are nothing, and that someone can speak to them that way in public and no one will stand up for them.”
The report stressed that though Zimbabwean law is meant to protect the property rights of widows, the majority of women are not in civil marriages, but rather in unregistered customary unions. Ironically, the courts sometimes request confirmation of such marriages from the widow’s in-laws – the very people who stand to benefit if the marriage is not confirmed.
Researchers also found that widows who decided to enter into legal battles to keep their property faced significant barriers when trying to access the courts. Nearly all of the women who successfully reclaimed their property managed to achieve this only with the assistance of NGOs.
The Women and Law Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA) is one such NGO. The organization’s national coordinator, Sylvia Chirawu, points out that the problem is not with the laws: “The law actually allows women in unregistered customary unions to inherit, if they can prove lobola (bride price) was paid, but the major challenge is that there is no proof of these unions.”
She advised widows to “keep some sort of proof [of their customary marriages], whether it be a DVD of the proceeding, the lobola list or an affidavit from their relatives proving that they received lobola.”
For her part, Brown recommended the government of Zimbabwe align existing laws with provisions made in the constitution. The constitution gives men and women equal rights to property, but in practice the laws make it difficult for widows to enforce their property rights, as they must provide proof of their customary marriage through their in-laws. The constitution also states that everyone should have access to the courts, but the various court fees and procedures make accessing the courts difficult for widows.
Brown also suggests the government use awareness campaigns to educate widows and family members on inheritance laws, and review the various court fees that can prohibit widows from challenging their in-laws in court.
Such educational campaigns could help women like Mpalasa, who is unaware of her property rights. She believes her brother-in-law was justified in taking her property as she had not contributed financially to the household. “I could not fight him, because I was not working and everything was in Charles’ name,” she said. “I just wish he had allowed us to stay in the house – at least I would still be living with my children.”