Two widows in eastern Zimbabwe, facing harassment from in-laws who are trying to force them to vacate their homes and fields. Rural Eastern Zimbabwe, October 2016. 

© 2016 Tendai Msiyazviriyo for Human Rights Watch

(Harare) – Widows in Zimbabwe are routinely evicted from their homes and land, and their property is stolen by in-laws when their husbands die, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of Zimbabwe should urgently take steps to protect widows from this practice.

The 53-page report, “‘You Will Get Nothing,’ Violations of Property and Inheritance Rights of Widows in Zimbabwe,” found that in-laws often tell women shortly after the deaths of their husbands that the relatives intend to take over the homes and lands or other property where the husband and wife had lived for decades. One widow quoted her brother-in-law’s words to her after her husband’s funeral, in front of the family that had gathered: “He said in my face, ‘You are rubbish and you will get nothing. I am taking everything.’”

“The impact of property grabbing on widows is devastating,” said Bethany Brown, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Women whose property was taken from them spoke of homelessness, destitution, and loss of livelihoods.”

Widows in Zimbabwe are routinely evicted from their homes and land, and their property is stolen by in-laws when their husbands die.

Based on interviews with 59 widows in all 10 provinces of Zimbabwe between May and October 2016, this report documents the human rights vulnerabilities and abuses that widows in Zimbabwe face.

In 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new constitution that provides for equal rights for women, including for inheritance and property. In practice, however, existing laws only apply to widows in officially registered marriages. Estimates are that most marriages in Zimbabwe are conducted under customary law and are not registered, so, in effect, these laws afford no protection from property-grabbing relatives.

Many widows described how they face insurmountable obstacles defending their property or taking legal steps to reclaim it. Fending off relatives while mourning their husbands and selling off productive assets like cattle to afford court fees and transportation were just some of the challenges. Once in court, widows said they were at a disadvantage without an official record of their marriage if it was a customary union. Courts look to the in-laws – the very people who stand to gain – to confirm the marriage, putting widows at the mercy of their husband’s family.

Nearly all of the widows interviewed for the report who successfully challenged efforts by in-laws to take over their property had benefited from legal services offered by organizations like the Legal Resources Foundation, and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust, Zimbabwe.

 
Older widows described feeling that the loss of their homes and the fields they had worked on with their husbands was catastrophic, as they had no time or energy to rebuild a lifetime of work. Many struggled to support themselves when their main source of livelihood, their land, had been taken from them.

Human Rights Watch conducted this research as part of an effort to map the vulnerabilities of older people to human rights abuses. With the rapid growth of older populations worldwide, there is a growing need to understand how discrimination, ageism, neglect, and abuse affect older people and what steps governments should take to protect their rights. By 2050, an estimated two billion people – almost a quarter of the world’s population – will be over age 60. The majority will be women. Widows face varying challenges in different countries and cultural settings. Property grabbing can be common in the Southern Africa region, and many older women have few other economic options. Widows of all ages are at risk of property grabbing and its grave harmful impacts.

Some of those interviewed said their in-laws simply forced them out of their homes immediately after their husbands died. Others said their in-laws threatened, physically intimidated, and insulted them to make them leave. In some cases, distant relatives of the deceased showed up years later and took over their property.

Many women did not know that they had a right to the property they held with their spouses. Others said they were wary of jeopardizing relationships with in-laws with whom they had shared their lives for many years, and who they had hoped would support them and their children.

According to the 2012 census, Zimbabwe is home to about 587,000 widows, and most women 60 and over are widowed. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that at least 70 percent of women in rural areas are in unregistered customary unions and are living under customary law.

“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,” said Brown. “That would help protect thousands of women each year against the injustice of being summarily thrown out of their homes when they become widows.”

Selected testimony from interviews:

“He [my brother-in-law] has taken all of my fields and even tilled my yard [to plant crops] up to my doorstep. Now, he says that I cannot walk on “his” fields. He says that I do not belong there. I reported this to the village headman, but he just tells us to live in peace. My brother-in-law is insistent. Maybe he is really happy to see us suffer. At my age, where can I go? I cannot start afresh.”

Deborah, 58 from Mashonaland East

“At the funeral of my brother-in-law, a few years previous to my husband’s passing, they [my in-laws] took everything, and left my sister in-law and kids destitute. I took them in. Now, my mother-in-law sleeps on her son’s [my brother-in-law’s] marital bed, with blankets made as gifts for him and his wife."

Charity, 49, from Mashonaland East

“I didn’t see the will but found out that there was one in court. My brother-in-law was the executor [of my husband’s will]. He mistreated me. Immediately after [his death], I sold household effects to survive for food. My in-laws saw that I sold things to buy food. My brother-in-law had me arrested [for selling things in the estate]. In court I was found not guilty. I served one week in jail [before trial]. It was terrible. One week was like a month.”

Mindy, 54, from Midlands

“Before my husband was even buried, my brother-in-law was making moves. He was running around from [government] office to [government] office. He tried to get my husband’s pension. They [officials] said it wasn’t ready but that he needed the death certificate for it. He got the death certificate by saying that his brother [my husband] was a widower … I learned about three weeks after my husband’s death that I was [being] left out. He took my car. I was surprised that this happened. We were a close family.”

– Bethel, 41, Bulawayo