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The plight of widowed rural women

“My husband`s death was a major setback, everything we had achieved together, including our plot was taken away because I refused to be inherited by his young brother according to traditional customs”, lamented  Janet Mpinga.

Janet, a 43-year-old widow from Seke rural community could not hold back her tears as she narrated her ordeal at the hands of her in-laws and traditional leadership who insisted that she could only be entitled to inherit her matrimonial piece of land if she agreed to be customarily inherited by her late husband`s brother.

“All was well before my husband passed away last year; our family depended on the plot we were allocated, unfortunately, there are no title deeds issued for this piece of land except for the offer letter registered under my husband`s name.

“ After my husband died, my husband`s brothers, with the blessing of traditional leadership told me that according to traditional laws the land belongs to a man, a woman can only benefit if she agrees to get married (inherited) by the late husband`s siblings who will be heir apparent responsible for looking after the deceased children”. She lamented.

Janet would not agree to be inherited by her husband`s brother because she did not like entering into a polygamous marriage since the brother is already married and has children.

A woman farmer takes visitors through her urban maize field
A women farmer takes visitors through her urban maize field

The general scope inequitable resource distribution is that allocation, ownership and benefit must be fair, regardless of gender.

However, discrepancies and patriarchal legal provisions such as the country’s inheritance laws have proved a hindrance to women’s right to land as contradictions between traditional regulations and the legislative frameworks in the country often trigger domestic conflicts in land inheritance after their spouses die.

For instance, when couples are allocated land, they are given only offer letters which are not title deeds hence the land is not an asset that can easily be shared according to the provisions of the marriages Act.

According to Zimbabwean law, the land belongs to the state, hence women are usually left crying foul after their husbands die and traditionally only man are entitled to land ownership. Virtually it means women have no guaranteed entitlement to land ownership.

Mela Chiponda, the Chiadzwa Development Trust programs director said “due to the gendered division of labour, women spend a lot of time working on the land and yet have limited rights of ownership, access and control”

“Land is mainly controlled by male household heads, with the assumption that the rights are held in trust for the entire household,

“Women often use land that they do not own and control, thus making women more vulnerable to land grabbing, which is prevalent in the natural resource extraction sector”, said Chiponda.

Dorcas Makaza Kanyimo of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) said “woman is forced to move out after their husband pass on because they can longer feel free to stay especially when they are married under customary law, for them to stay on the land they need to be verified by relatives, who have the power to consent or deny that right”.

“The problem is that there is no specific law that spells out the inheritance of land unless if there were title deeds that could specify it as shareable property”, she said.

Inheritance laws passed in 1997 provide protection for widows married under customary law, whose husbands die without leaving a will. The Administration of Estates Act made the surviving spouse and children the primary beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate.

Edith Mashawidza, chairperson of the Women and Land in Zimbabwe said “although the constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender, it allows this clause to fall away where it runs contrary to customary law. Thus, if the husband dies, the widow does not automatically inherit his land”.

Chief Seke of Seke rural community maintained that “through the traditional land governance set up, land is usually inherited or allocated usually to a son (through a family set up) who is assumed to be the head of the filmily and women join the men through marriage as a daughter in law (muroora) who is considered to be a supportive arm of the family, which is why it appears men and traditional leaders have supremacy over land than women”.

During the recent Transparency International consultative workshop on land and corruption, Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa, an associate professor of Sociology with University of Zimbabwe said divorced women are migrating to urban areas where they enjoy more security and control on investments than in rural areas where they are forced to be subject to suppressive traditional laws especially when their husbands die.

“Young rural women whose husbands die are forced to migrate to urban areas where there is at least a level playing ground,

“They are prejudiced by traditional laws which dictate that land belongs to a man, consequently when the husband dies they are kicked out and even the chiefs cannot protect them, so they choose to opt out and start new lives in urban areas where they invest in property that they enjoy full rights”

Prominent lawyer Professor Geoffrey Feltoe said firstly there has to be political will in order to create and apply law that can stop such practices.

“Although government has criminalised various cultural practices considered contrary to modern values on rights of women, there is little enforcement of laws particularly in rural communities,

“Many women and girls in traditional rural societies are unaware of laws that protect them against violations to their rights,

“Constraints from cultural traditional set-up also hinder them to report such violations to the police”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “land is the key to life and dignity; it is the basis for ensuring an adequate standard to life and economic independence and empowerment”.

Land rights have a major implication for the achievement and enjoyment of women’s rights such as the right to equality, food, health, housing, water, work and education.

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