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Widows fight for their rights
– von Jeffrey Moyo
Four years ago, Tracy Chiwonde married a widower, but recently her husband passed away. Since then, the 44-year-old has been fighting with his sons from his first marriage over the house where she lived with her husband. The three sons – all in their late twenties – want the property for themselves. According to Zimbabwe’s inheritance laws, however, Chiwonde is the rightful heir.
The Administration of Estates Act states that upon the death of a spouse – no matter whether it is the husband or wife –, the surviving spouse inherits the property. But the sons of Chiwonde’s late husband do not accept this fact. “They are giving me sleepless nights,” Chiwonde says. “They want me out of this home.” Chiwonde has no children of her own and is now living by herself in her husband’s house in Mabvuku, a high-density suburb of the capital Harare.
One of the sons, called Dennis, explains why he sees things differently: “Our biological mother actually owned the house in question. But now it belongs to a stranger because she was the last who was married to our father. It’s not fair.”
According to gender-rights activist Linet Saungweme from the Musasa Project, stories of bitter quarrels between widows and their spouses’ families over property left behind are very common in Zimbabwe. “Usually, the widows and their children lose out,” Saungweme says. The Musasa Project is a non-governmental organisation that aims to reduce violence against women and girls and to help them rebuild their lives after experiencing gender-based violence. Widows often suffer violence by their in-laws.
Traditionally, women in Zimbabwe could not inherit any property. Melinda Chiwara, a lawyer, explains: “Women were only entitled to what we call in our Shona culture ‘maoko’ property, which is kitchen utensils: pots, spoons, plates – and that was it.” Women could not inherit cattle or houses. Instead, they were themselves seen as an asset that is to be distributed like any other property. Even though the laws have changed, tradition still plays an important role.
Jeffrey Moyo is a journalist and lives in Harare.