Zim widows still vulnerable to age-old patriarchal practices

By Lazarus Sauti

In Zimbabwe, women and girls make the largest number of people who are abused and the situation becomes a double tragedy for widows, of which the country is home to around 587 000 of them, according to the 2012 census.

Widows, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch, titled “You Will Get Nothing: Violations of Property and Inheritance of Widows in Zimbabwe”, are still vulnerable to age-old societal and patriarchal practices which deny them the right of inheritance to their late spouses’ wealth and property.

“In Zimbabwe, widows are routinely deprived of land and property when their husbands die,” says the report. “They are pushed into extreme poverty and fighting back takes courage and costs money that many widows do not have.”

Another study by the Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) notes that many women in Zimbabwe are side-lined in land ownership due to lack of information, finances as well as negative cultural practices such as customary impositions.

The study adds that most widows and divorced women are badly affected.

When she lost her husband in November 2016, Norah Chaitezvi (36) from Mazowe District in Mashonaland Central Province says she was kicked out of her house and pushed into extreme poverty by her brother in law.

“My brother in law insulted me and grabbed everything: my land, four cows and food,” she says, with tears flowing down her cheeks.

“I was intimidated and forced to go back to my parents together with my two small children. I lost everything, mostly my dignity.”

Chaitezvi says like many widows in her community, she lost much more than just her husband; and as such, she is living in abject poverty, a fact supported by the Global Widows Report (2015), which notes that 15 percent of all widows in developing nations like Zimbabwe live in extreme poverty.

Development practitioner, Cynthia Chanengeta, says more women, especially in rural areas are in unregistered customary unions which makes them more vulnerable to property-grabbing, categorised as gender-based violence (GBV) by the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development.

“According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), at least 70 percent of women in rural areas are in unregistered traditional relationships and our patriarchal structures and ideology expect these women to be passive actors in marriage, where men are breadwinners,” she says, adding that this makes them vulnerable to age-old patriarchal practices.

Popular culture in this country, asserts human rights activist, Simbarashe Namusi, exposes widows like Chaitezvi to stigmatisation, a sensitive problem in this country.

“In most, if not all, communities, widows are not only stigmatised, but also portrayed as objects of men’s sexual desire,” he says. “They are also labelled sexually amorous as well as given other nasty traits.”

Researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report “You Will Get Nothing: Violations of Property and Inheritance of Widows in Zimbabwe”, Bethany Brown, says the impact of property-grabbing on widows is devastating; and therefore, urges the government to take urgent steps to protect all women against the injustice of being summarily thrown out of their homes when they become widows.

“The government should take immediate steps to register all marriages, including customary unions, reform its marriage laws, and raise awareness of the property rights of widows so as to protect thousands of women each year against the injustice of being summarily thrown out of their homes when they become widows,” she recommends.

Widowhood, says social worker, Gibson Mushumba, is a root cause of poverty, the worst form of violence; accordingly, the government, at every level, together with its development partners, should come up with plans, strategies and policies as well as accommodate actions to reduce the poverty of widows.

“Widowhood is neglected by social care policies. Imagine with all abuses afflicting widows, their rights and needs are not mentioned in some of the most important policy-setting documents on women, poverty, and development.,” he says. “This anomaly should be corrected if the country is to achieve sustainable development.”

Directed by Article 20 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, adds Mushumba, the country should take appropriate legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights and are protected from inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment.

Gender activist, Garikai Mangongera, also says stakeholders should come up with gender sensitivity programmes in marginalised communities so as to bring about the much needed changes.

“The government, together with key stakeholders, should use dramas, poetry as well as music, to fight patriarchal norms in our societies, especially in rural parts of the country,” adds Mangongera.

“The parliament should also ensure widows have meaningful access to legal remedies to protect their rights to property as enshrined in Section 17 1 (c) of the Constitution which provides that the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must take practical measures to ensure that women have access to resources, including land, on the basis of equality with men.”

He also says traditional leaders, as opinion leaders, should be at the forefront of gender sensitivity as well as mainstreaming programmes in rural areas and these leaders should work with male models to challenge the thinking and behaviour of other men.

Sharing the same sentiments, Sharon Chipunza of Women and Land in Zimbabwe, adds: “Changes in the awareness and actions of men are equally necessary if we are to effectively protect widows from patriarchal practices.

“Often, men are the key decision-makers at global, national, community and family levels; therefore, it is vital to work with them as change agents to eradicate all forms of discrimination.”

She also says it is helpful to gain support of men in significant social positions like religious authorities to put forward as well as hold up equal rights plans, strategies and policies.

Chanengeta says people, especially social workers, should use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to educate others on the dangers of deeply-rooted structural obstacles such as unequal distribution of resources, which are holding back Zimbabwean women.

“Social norms are a clear obstacle to Zimbabwean women’s progress, limiting the time women can spend in education as well as access to economic and financial assets.

Accordingly, all stakeholders in the gender empowerment sector should encourage the use of social media platforms to fight all forms of gender violence,” she says, adding: “If the media is the fourth estate of the realm; social media is the fifth one.”

February 2017
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