HARARE – “Before my husband was even buried, my brother-in-law was making moves (to take over my property)…,” a widow living in a homestead outside Bulawayo with her three children told me, “I only realised about three weeks later that I was being left out.”
She is not alone in this experience. We interviewed more than 60 widows from throughout Zimbabwe and found that in many cases, their in-laws would claim all of their property and resources after their husbands died, in many cases leaving them homeless, landless, and penniless.
This is a silent epidemic of gender-based violence. And the results can be catastrophic.
Many widows lose everything they have worked for. Their children may have to drop out of school.
They depend on the charity of others when they used to be standing on their own two feet, staying with relatives, trying to find income opportunities. Those who can still work must start from nothing, resulting in poverty that follows them for the rest of their lives.
Many other widows I spoke to from all over Zimbabwe during research for the Human Rights Watch report “You will get nothing” on the rights of widows said that in-laws evicted them from their homes, and forced them off the lands they worked for their livelihoods.
This cuts off women’s economic empowerment at the root, by taking away the stability of a home and livelihood, on top of grief over the loss of a spouse.
Over 70 percent of women in Zimbabwe are involved in the agricultural economy.
The loss of a field is the loss of the most valuable income-generating asset most women have.
This happens to thousands of women each year in Zimbabwe.
Relatives move in when the woman is grieving and vulnerable. Many widows are older women who may not have the information or the financial resources they need to fight a husband’s family.
Many families claim that it is their right to take the family’s property under customary law. But it is greed, not culture, that drives this practice.
Property grabbing is a problem in other southern African countries as well. Botswana and South Africa have both taken legal steps to end the practice.
The introduction of the Marriages Bill is an opportunity for Zimbabwe to take practical legal steps, too. It should make registration available for marriages of all types.
Widows I spoke with who were in unregistered customary unions were the most vulnerable.
Courts ask their in-laws to verify their unions in court. Even if they know their rights, and get themselves to court, the widows are often at the mercy of their in-laws to confirm that they were married.
Women whose marriages were registered and who are able to get legal help still face challenges, but are more likely to be successful in the courts.
Bethel’s in-laws tried to use her unregistered status as leverage for a bribe from her.
She was fortunate to obtain free legal services from a local organisation to rebuff them, and keep her home.
Where the law does not protect, it should be amended so that it protects everyone.
As a Zimbabwean, I have been working on human rights for many years. It is time Zimbabweans started seeing widows differently.
Their equal property rights are not optional, nor is this a “family matter.” Zimbabwe should put a spotlight on widows’ rights.
Property grabbing violates women’s rights, harms children, and hinders development.
For the good of this country, Zimbabwe should seek to change laws and support widows, because they are entitled to the same rights as every other person here.
• Mavhinga is senior southern Africa Researcher for Human Rights Watch and heads its South Africa office.