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African widows left destitute by relatives snatching property

The US Congress is considering a bill to strengthen African inheritance rights.

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"Ours is a principally customary society," says Clement Mudenda, director of the National Legal Aid Clinic for Women, Zambia's only such resource. "But customary law courts are presided over by men, and their judgments have been unfair for the most part."

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The clinic employs eight lawyers for the entire country and averages more than 700 property-grabbing cases a year. Most victims of property-grabbing, however, never pursue legal action.

Many women simply do not know their rights, advocates say, and others fear reprisals from their community if they try to recover their belongings.

"You find that even where legally a woman is the sole survivor and the property is registered in both their names, she lets them take it," says Gladys Mutukwa, a lawyer and consultant on gender, law, and development in the Zambian capital Lusaka.

But even widows who do prosecute rarely have anything to show for what can be a lengthy and harrowing legal process, Mr. Mudenda says.

"A lot of property is gone right after burial, it just disappears and it's very hard to get it back," Mudenda says. "If the parties appeal, then it can take months. A lot of women just throw up their arms."

When stolen property has strong sentimental value, the crime can be particularly painful. Mudenda knows this sad fact all too well. After his father died in 1964, Mudenda's relatives took everything, mementos and all.

"For years, I mourned a Bible of mine that was taken," he says. "It was something that I won out of my own effort at school. I never got to see the relative that grabbed it."

For Mudenda, fighting property-grabbing is a personal crusade, one he wishes the government would join. Statutory courts are starting to make examples of property-grabbers, but not nearly enough to satisfy critics like Mudenda.

For their part, Zambian government officials say they are making national education about property-grabbing a priority.

"Basically it is a question of us going on a campaign to sensitize our women and children on the existence of this law," says Nicholas Banda, chief childcare officer in Zambia's Department of Child Affairs. "Perpetrators of property-grabbing are capitalizing on the ignorance."

The US House of Representatives is looking at the issue. Thirty representatives introduced a bill two weeks ago calling for greater attention to the inheritance rights of women and orphans in Africa.

But Mr. Ndulo, the Cornell legal expert, says the Zambian government must send a clear and consistent message to potential property-grabbers that the practice is wrong.

"Yes, Zambia has a law. But now widows are living in a society which is not accepting those laws," he says. "You can have beautiful laws on the books. But you need to enforce the law and educate society that children will benefit from this."

Meanwhile, back in Livingstone, Zulu has rebuilt her tailoring business. She now has six sewing machines and makes uniforms, bedspreads, and traditional clothing at her stall at the city market.