Opportunistic relatives in Zimbabwe routinely trample the property and inheritance rights of widows, and the government lets it happen, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.
The title of the 52-page report by HRW says it all, “You Will Get Nothing.”
HRW researcher Bethany Brown says widows are routinely evicted from their homes and land, and their property is stolen by in-laws when their husbands die.
“I spoke with widows across the country who spoke about myriad ways in which this happened. Some were insulted, intimidated, threatened physically," said Brown. "In practice, protections right now for widows are only available in registered marriages. The most marriages in Zimbabwe are customary unions. Our recommendations are that the government needs to make available registration of marriages of all types.”
A registered marriage can be more expensive and difficult, and many Zimbabwe men prefer customary unions as they allow for polygamy.
Zimbabwe Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development official Ivan Dumba says efforts have been made to educate women about their rights.
“In terms of the problem of property grabs, as a ministry, we categorize this as gender-based violence," said Dumba. "Over the year, and slightly over a year, we have established five one-stop centers for gender-based violence. The one-stop centers are essentially places where you have got comprehensive services: medical services, legal services, counseling services under one roof.”
But former government minister Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga learned enforcing your rights is not easy when she lost her husband.
"I am an activist," said Priscilla. "I had access to information. I had access to the best lawyer. ... I had access to the courts. At that particular time, I was a Cabinet minister. Yet I woke up one morning, I had nothing, absolutely nothing, except a suitcase and clothes I had on when I walked out. As I looked at the report and I saw that the theme was, “You Will Get Nothing,” I then thought that perhaps we should have added another thing: you will get nothing and you are nothing.”
Widows say they can find themselves buried in grief and litigation.
Fifty three-year-old Maliyaziwa Malunga says she was stuck in several court cases and when she won one case another relative would come. She says his brother came and said he wanted the house she was living in. She says she lost sleep and her health deteriorated because of the stress. She says some relatives physically assaulted her.
She was married under a customary union, leaving her with limited legal recourse.
The government has not indicated whether it will make some form of registration available for all unions. But activists point out there is something a man can do to protect his wife in the event of his death - make a will.