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Zimbabwe’s Marriage Reform Should Do More for Women

Bill Doesn’t Protect Women’s Rights to Marital Property

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Widows of brothers
They [our in-laws] took over  large portions of our land. Every day they threaten us, telling us that as widows we have no right to the land and that we should leave.

Bethany Brown
Human Rights Watch

Around the world, millions of older women and older people generally, routinely experience violations of their human rights.  Each year, thousands of widows across Zimababwe have their property grabbed by their husband’s relatives. They lose their homes, they lose their fields, they lose everything.    

Maliyaziwa Malunga
Widow who lost property to in-laws

They take all the goods we are using with my husband, even cars, properties. They left me with nothing. //A marriage certificate offers protection sometimes, obviously.

Bethany Brown
Human Rights Watch

A widow would need to prove that she was married in order to be able to fend off relatives’ property grabbing in courts. Estimates are that up to 70% of marriages in Zimbabwe are unregistered, customary law unions.

Slyvia Chirawu
National Coordinator
Women and Law in Southern Africa

Research and Education Trust (WLSA) 
Imagine the process a woman that doesn’t have a marriage certificate has to go through.  She has to go to the court, convince the court that she was married. And sometimes even if she might have five, six children, the relatives turn around and say she wasn’t married.

Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga 
Widow & Member of Parliament

An African marriage has always been understood as a communal marriage. It used to work when it was being understood if the husband dies, what the other family members are doing in coming in and taking responsibility //however that has now been changed because of greed because of the general changes that have happened in society.

Widows of Brothers 
If our husbands were alive, they [the in-laws] would not do what they are doing. This harassment is happening because our husbands died.

Bethany Brown
Human Rights Watch 

If a widow overcomes that initial hurdle overcomes of getting herself to court, she still will face the struggle to be able to pay for transportation and court fees.

Lucia Masuka Zanhi
Legal Resources Foundation

The court fees also, they’re a challenge and I know authorities will say but perhaps for some cases it is just $5 or it’s a dollar. But for the groups that we’re talking about, the groups that we interact with, the rural population and even some of those who are in the urban areas, they are not able to raise the $1 or the $5 that we’re talking about so I think it’s one area again that then hinders access to justice.

Bob Isaiah Muchadya Dzere
Nhaka African Worldview Trust, NGO for widow’s rights

We have to advocate, that this has to stop. // I think much more work should be done to do outreach work, advocacy so that the people are conscious about it, they’re educated about it. If my wife becomes a widow, I want her to miss my presence only. Not any other thing. She must have all the property with her and I am taking care that the property is not grabbed away from her.  The registration of the house and the car it’s under her name.

Bethany Brown
Human Rights Watch

Widows in Zimbabwe need to have access to information about their rights to property. They need to know about ways that they can defend their property through the court system if someone tries to grab it from them. And the government needs to make registration available for marriages of all types.

Widows of brothers
It’s hard to be subjected to this kind of suffering when your husband dies. 

A proposed marriage law being discussed in Zimbabwe doesn’t adequately protect women’s property rights at divorce. Without legal protection, many women could be left homeless or without a means of income after their marriage ends or if their husband dies.

In Zimbabwe, laws surrounding marriage and divorce don’t fall in line with the country’s constitution, which provides that spouses have equal rights and responsibilities. This can mean that women don’t always get what they have the right to following the end of a marriage or death of a husband, especially when it comes to property.

The Marriages Bill, introduced in January 2017, is seen as a long-awaited chance for parliament to reconcile the country’s marriage laws with its constitution. But parliament needs to broaden the scope of the law to make sure women get a genuinely equal deal when it comes to property rights both during marriage and after divorce, separation, or the death of a spouse.

Currently, Zimbabwe has a separate law governing dissolution of marriage, the Matrimonial Causes Act, that allows for equitable distribution of property between spouses at divorce, considering direct and indirect contributions such as raising children and caring for the family and household. But even under this act, the realities of life haven’t reflected the law. Many women lose their property when a marriage ends or husband dies while men and men’s families keep everything.”

Without specific protections for women’s property rights, this bill for “equality” rings hollow.

By some estimates, at least 70 percent of women living in rural areas of Zimbabwe are in unregistered customary unions. This bill seeks to expand protection of marriage laws to more partnerships and would extend rights to civil partnerships of long-time cohabiters, and increase the minimum age of marriage to 18.

Extending more and equal protections to more women in different types of unions is a good step, but the proposed law cannot fully provide protection without detailing marital property rights. Parliament should ensure real equality for spouses both during marriage and at its end.

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