African widows left destitute by relatives snatching property

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

When Tamara Zulu's husband died, leaving her as the sole breadwinner, she turned to her skills as a tailor to support her five children.

Then came Ms. Zulu's in-laws.

A month after the funeral, relying on tribal traditions that assign inheritance rights to relatives of deceased men, the out-of-towners swooped in and took everything, including Zulu's only sewing machine. The suddenly destitute widow scrambled to rent tailoring equipment and feed her family.

"They don't even write or ask about the children," says the Livingstone resident. "They don't help you educate the children. So I have to struggle on my own."

The tradition of "property-grabbing" has benign roots: Widows and children were once absorbed by a man's family along with his property. These days, however, with 80 percent of Zambians living on less than $1 a day, the in-laws usually just want the goods. Now this vestige of patriarchal society is illegal - nominally, at least - in most countries.

But as AIDS ravages much of sub-Sarahan Africa, opportunities have grown for illegal property taking. Experts say that unless governments get a handle on the age-old custom, it will continue to feed the cycle of poverty here, as widows and children are left not only without their main provider but also with little of the material support they may have had.

"For children, it's a double tragedy. It means orphans lose parents but also are deprived of the means of survival," says Muna Ndulo, a Zambian legal expert and professor at Cornell University Law School in Ithaca, N.Y.

Preventing the loss of orphans' inheritances is particularly urgent in Zambia, where 17.6 percent of children have lost at least one parent, the highest rate in the world. By 2005, 1 in 5 Zambian children will be parentless, largely due to AIDS.

Statistics on property-grabbing are spotty, but the trend is clear. The US State Department called property-grabbing in Zambia rampant in a 2001 human rights report. Nearly 30 percent of Ugandan widows are stripped of property, the United Nations found. And in March, Human Rights Watch, an independent monitoring group, implored the Kenyan government to end widespread property-rights violations there.

In Zambia, both domestic and international statutes outlaw property-grabbing. A 1989 Zambian law forbids the practice, and as a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women - adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and signed by more than 170 countries - the government is bound to prevent gender discrimination.

But ancient custom often trumps modern law here, especially as the cash-strapped Zambian government lacks the ability - and, some women's groups say, the will - to enforce its mandates. Confusion surrounding the jurisdiction in property-grabbing cases is a problem as well.

The Zambian legal system integrates both African and European legal procedures. While the Zambian Constitution declares gender discrimination illegal, it also holds an exception for matters usually handled by customary law.

Because most Zambians still marry under customary law, which is generally less favorable to the rights of women and children, women who seek relief from property-grabbing in customary courts usually leave empty-handed.

"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."

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.

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