March 1 2013

Destitute overnight - the plight of Zimbabwe’s widows

01/03/2013 - Following the death of her husband, Mary and her two children were immediately dispossessed of everything they owned. The law states that this should not happen.  What did happen has helped strengthen women and families elsewhere. 

"You will not live in that house," shouted her brother-in law. With these words ringing in her ears, Mary and her children aged eight and ten were chased away from her comfortable marital home. The bereaved family were forced to move into a small tin shack. Mary described her experience as, "the hardest imaginable era which no woman on earth would want to live".

SOS SOical centres helping to provide disadvantaged communities excercise their fundimental rights © SOS Archives
Mary & her daughters happy to discover the rights that prevented a life of poverty © SOS Archives
Though she had legal entitlement to the property and everything in it, her dead husband's brother took over the marital property completely – including all furnishings. Mary and the children were left with nothing.

Traditional practices dictate that women and children can end up totally disinherited following the death of the husband and father. Siblings of the deceased are known to take possession of all property and cast grieving widows and children into a life of destitution.

In some cases, a young widow can be obliged to become the wife of her former husband’s elder brother. Such arrangements can place the children form a previous marriage at risk.

Although Mary was not subjected to being 'inherited', she lost her rights to the property because she was unaware of her legal entitlements. A concerned neighbour tracked down Mary and her children in their shack and informed them that SOS Children's Villages could provide much needed practical help on a number of fronts. Initially their basic short-term needs such as food, clothing and school materials were addressed.

Rights awareness averted family poverty

Mary was then informed that SOS Children's Villages works in partnership with the Justice for Children Trust. With their help she regained possession of her home. However, tradition is strong in Zimbabwe. When the law forced her brother-in-law to handover the property, he begrudgingly did so. His legacy was to place a curse on their former home, in the knowledge that Mary and her family will not live in a house that was now deemed to be haunted.

Nevertheless, she has managed to generate an income from the rental of the house. This covers the rent she now pays on the smaller place, the family now call home. It also provides surplus cash to cover school fees and other day-to-day costs. “Though I am not living in it, I am now happy that the house is in my possession," said Mary. Her story has reached other women across Zimbabwe who are following her lead.

In common with others who were previously dispossessed, Mary does not require longer-term support. Approximately 100km north of the capital Narare the door at the SOS Social Centre in Bindura remains open to a growing number of widows and others who need practical support to keep their family’s strengthened.

The name of the individual has been changed to protect her privacy

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