For African women, rights come slowly

Edna Mahureva's only crime was to resist eviction. For that, the grandmother was arrested by riot police and thrown in a maximum-security jail for three months.

Recently released, a tearful Mrs. Mahureva huddles on her front stoop, wrinkled and weak, asking again and again: "Why did they do this to me?"

The answer lies in Zimbabwe's system of African customary law - traditional rules which, depending on interpretation, state that a woman has no right to inherit property, get her fair share in a divorce settlement, or even refuse sex from a husband.

Mahureva lost rights to the home she had owned for 20 years on the day her husband died. When her eldest son inherited the property and sold it off, the courts punished the widow for refusing to leave.

The irony is that customary laws, in effect in most southern African countries, were originally intended to protect women and children. But the Mahureva case is just one in a recent string of legal rulings in Zimbabwe that have dispossessed widows and disadvantaged mothers.

"They are literally taking us back to the caves," fumes lawyer Rita Makarau, a leading light among the small legion of lawyers, activists, and politicians who are fighting for improved gender equality in the region.

But, in spite of such disheartening stories like Mahureva's, some progress has come to women in Africa. The United Nations marked another International Women's Day yesterday - with particular pride in the limited but significant advances in women's rights in Africa. From the recently won right for women to seek divorce in Egypt to literacy education in Mali and grass-roots struggles against genital mutilation in Eritrea and Sudan, there is hope for Africa's women.

Injustice based on gender

But such policy shifts mean little to Mahureva as she cries on her porch, struggling to understand the injustice she suffered. "I built this house with my husband," she says. "I worked in the fields for years to buy the bricks. Then I carried the bricks on my head from eight kilometers away, 12 at a time, 1,000 in all.... I raised eight children here."

Like most impoverished Africans, her husband did not leave a will when he died in 1994. In the absence of a legal document, African customary law kicked into effect, and the house automatically became property of the eldest son, a local pastor.

The son sold the house without consulting his mother. Mahureva returned from a funeral one day to discover her belongings stashed in a shed and a new owner on the steps, demanding the keys. Shocked, Mahureva went to see her son, "but he ran away. He did not explain anything."

"We were a very close family," adds Arison, one of four adult children who gather around Mahureva as she recounts her story. "But he was born blind, and I think now he is just very bitter.... We all tried to reason with him. It has not worked."

The new owner of the house attempted to have Mahureva evicted, but each time court officials arrived, her protective neighbors chased them out of the township. At one point, Mahureva fought off removal by stripping her blouse and throwing a punch at a court officer. Her other children moved back into the house in a bid to safeguard their mother.

None could fight the riot police. Officers barged into the house in the dead of night and carted Mahureva, six of her adult children and seven grandchildren to jail. The family called Ms. Makarau, a prominent women's rights lawyer, and police released them the following day.

"You can't tell me the son has a higher right to own that house, to sell it out from under his mother and pocket the money - simply because he is a man," says Makarau.

One of about 50 practicing women lawyers in Zimbabwe, Makarau has taken on one challenging case after the other in a brave bid to push for changes in unfair customary laws. Her criticism of "chauvinistic judges" once prompted a court to threaten her with contempt-of-court charges.

Despite a steely determination, Makarau knew she would lose this case, just like all the others. "The judgments are technically correct. The problem is that customary law is just loaded with discrimination against females."

Zimbabwe's constitution actually forbids discrimination on the basis of gender. The country's "general laws" abide by that rule as long as a marriage union has been formalized.

But many women are wed under Shona customary law and do not register marriages. A husband pays a bride price - the labola - and in the case of a divorce, he retains guardianship of the children. (A woman may receive custody, but decisions involving the children must go through the man - everything from passport applications to permission for medical procedures.) If a woman fails to produce a child, the husband's family can demand return of the payment.

Polygamy is accepted and yet, according to a legal ruling last year, husbands can demand exclusive sexual services from their wives - and sue in the case of adultery.

In another controversial case, a Zimbabwean judge found that, unless a couple is formally separated, a husband may force his wife to have sex.

Makarau went so far as to petition the country's president for help, but in November, Mahureva was sent to a maximum-security jail nonetheless.

"I was afraid.... I was in a cell with 40 other women, in a world with people who had killed and robbed people. And all I did was fight for my home." She lost 10 dress sizes before emerging from the prison gates last month.

"Other sons have used this law to dispossess their mothers," says Douglas Mhizha of HelpAge, a non-profit group that is now helping Mahureva raise money to buy out the new owner of her house.

He notes that customary laws were written at a time when families lived in communal areas, and men were seen as the family's only capable providers.

'Cultural laws must change'

"Society is changing," says Mr. Mhizha. "Women are working. Families are moving to the cities.... But there are so many hard-core traditionalists who say that customary law must stand. We say culture is dynamic, and cultural laws must change."

Women's Action Group, an educational trust, is conducting seminars in rural areas to encourage women to register their customary marriages - a step that allows them to apply for property rights under general law.

Makarau says women will always find it hard to resist a traditional marriage unless they come to develop an identity of their own. "What is needed is massive education for girls and job opportunities for women."

She continues the court fight for Mahureva's home. Meanwhile, the widow herself has rented out three rooms to help raise money for a buyout of the new owner. Strangers live in her front rooms while Mahureva sleeps on the floor of a dingy kitchen, lying on a mat with her daughter Virginia and a five-year-old grandson.

Paint peels off the walls. Second-hand clothes drape from rusty nails. A faded picture of The Last Supper hangs in one room. It may not be much, but to Mahureva, this is home. "I will not stop fighting for it. Never."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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