When Michelle, 57, was widowed in 2012, she lost more than her husband. Shortly after his death, her in-laws took over the fields she had tilled for decades. They also stole the fruit from the trees in her kitchen garden and sold the harvest, leaving her without any livelihood. They further harassed, intimidated, and insulted her by surrounding and physically restraining her and telling her to leave her home, in an attempt to chase her away.
Michelle’s neighbors advised her to contact Legal Resources Foundation, a legal aid organization that could help her protect her inheritance. It was only after this organization took the matter to court and Michelle obtained restraining orders against her in-laws that she was able to go back to tilling her fields. But her in-laws continue to threaten to take her only cow, so she still worries about the future: “I am fearful and my heart is unsettled.”
Glynnis, 50, was not as fortunate as Michelle. When her husband of 20 years passed away, her in-laws made it clear that they no longer wanted her around:
After his death, things became difficult. There was no support for food, and I couldn’t send my children to school. They [my in-laws] kept saying I should leave the house.… They kept saying to go away, which pained me, so I left. I just left my marital home.
They also took five cattle and household items. I tried to get [my husband’s army pension] but [his relatives] wouldn’t sign the paperwork. I have gotten nothing. I believe that this is unfair to my children … [but] I have given up. I can do nothing [to stop it].
Glynnis left the home she had owned with her husband, seeing no way to keep her property in the face of constant harassment from her in-laws. She went to the house where she grew up, which is now owned by her brother. Her brother agreed to let her and her three children farm some of his land, and she now farms and pays government taxes—a levy for all farmers—on the land. Glynnis no longer owns a property.
Based on interviews with 59 widows in all 10 provinces of Zimbabwe between May and October 2016, this report documents the human rights vulnerabilities and abuses that widows in Zimbabwe face. Around the world, millions of older women—and older people generally—routinely experience violations of their human rights. This report focuses on abuses related to property grabbing from widows, predominantly older women.
Chronological age is not the exclusive determinant of whether a person will experience old age discrimination. A widow who is perceived as being older because of physical and other attributes, such as white hair or wrinkles, could face age discrimination regardless of her calendar age. Most of the widows we interviewed could have been perceived as older and may have been targeted for property grabbing because of relatives’ real or imagined belief that they would be unable to defend themselves. Violations against older people are common and include discrimination, social and political exclusion, abuses in nursing facilities, neglect in humanitarian settings, and denial and rationing of health care. Most abuse goes undocumented and the perpetrators unpunished, as governments, UN agencies, and human rights actors have long ignored the rights of older people.
The abuses documented in this report were experienced by older and younger widows. Human Rights Watch also interviewed representatives of nongovernmental organizations and legal aid organizations who provide support to widows and conducted an extensive review of relevant domestic legislation and policy documents.
According to the 2012 census, Zimbabwe is home to around 587,000 widows, and most women aged 60 and over are widowed. Many of these older women are vulnerable to violations of their property and inheritance rights. Every year, in-laws evict thousands of widows from their homes and land, leaving them with no roof over their head, no means of income, and no support networks. Others face persistent harassment from in-laws who often accuse them of being responsible for the death of their husbands.
More than 250 million widows around the world face multiple abuses, neglect, and social exclusion and too frequently are pushed into extreme poverty; the Loomba Foundation estimated that in 2015, 38,261,345 million widows were living in extreme poverty. For some, the abuses they face as widows continue a lifetime of gender-based discrimination abuse and deprivation that often includes being married as a child, being deprived of education opportunities, abusive marriages, and other violence. The effects of discrimination based on gender and other statuses accumulate across the life course. When confronted with yet another status upon which they might be discriminated—their marital status of widowhood—older widows face even more heightened vulnerability.
Despite these abuses, the rights and needs of widows are not mentioned in some of the most important policy-setting documents on women, poverty, and development. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action did not mention widows, nor did the Millennium Development Goals, or their replacements, the Sustainable Development Goals. Important development donors, such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), do not reference widows in their gender policies, as is the case with the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health. The United States Agency for International Development, another development donor, merely references widows’ property rights in its gender policy, and the 2002 UN Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing notes widows’ risk of poverty and widowhood rites. These are scant references when compared to the scope of challenges widows face.
Zimbabwean law provides for relatively equal property and inheritance rights for men and women. However, many of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed struggled to claim those rights for reasons unique to their status as widows. In Zimbabwe’s recent history, men traditionally owned all family property, and when women were widowed, they were often “inherited” as wives by male relatives of their deceased spouse. In Zimbabwe today, wife inheritance is no longer the norm and property can be held by both men and women. However, few women formally own the property held in their marriage. As a result, their ability to keep the property they shared with their husband upon the death of their husband becomes dependent both on proving their marriage, which can pose great challenges, and on warding off in-laws intent on property grabbing.
There are three types of marriage in Zimbabwe: the civil marriage (monogamous, registered marriage recognized by the state, commonly referred to as a “5.11 Marriage”), the customary law marriage (under which a man may have more than one wife but is registered), and the most common, the unregistered customary union. These unregistered customary marriages are not registered officially with any government agency or local officials. Without any official record of the marriage, a widow who wants to make a claim to property that was held in the marriage but is formally owned by the late husband (or members of his family) has to demonstrate that she was indeed married to him. Doing so is tricky because the courts can require confirmation from the widow’s in-laws, who are the very people who stand to benefit if the marriage is not confirmed. Not surprisingly, many of the widows Human Rights Watch interviewed said their in-laws were unwilling to provide such confirmation.
No fewer than two thirds of the women who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they experienced the profound injustice of their in-laws taking over their homes or property, and feeling helpless to stop it. Others simply did not know that they had property and inheritance rights to begin with and were unable to withstand the intimidation tactics used by their in-laws such as daily shaming, harassment, and physical assaults. Others said that they were wary of jeopardizing relationships with in-laws with whom they had shared their lives for many years, and whom they had hoped would support them and their children in familial and cultural ways.
Widows who decided to mount legal fights to keep their property told Human Rights Watch that they faced major barriers doing so. They described an array of procedural and practical hurdles. They said that they had to travel long distances to reach government agencies and courts; that correspondence about claims was often sent to family members of their late husbands, who had little interest in sharing it with them; and that court fees were prohibitive. Being stripped of their only means of income (the United Nations estimates that over 70 percent of women are involved in the agricultural economy in Zimbabwe), these widows also faced a catch-22 situation: they needed proceeds from their property to pay the cost of proceedings, and they needed to pay for the proceedings in order to get back their property. Almost all of the women we interviewed who successfully reclaimed their property were assisted by nongovernmental organizations. Without this legal support, the barriers appear insurmountable for most widows.
Widows also face strong social pressure to accept property-grabbing by in-laws, some of which, families assert, derives from interpretations of customary laws. Some families assert that under customary laws for their communities, only those “in” the family, i.e., men, are entitled to inherit land and property. Others say that within this customary system, widows will be protected and provided for by the male in-laws who inherit. But too often in the modern context, there is no such protection. While customary laws can evolve and change and can offer opportunities to advance women’s equality, they can also be interpreted or applied in ways that discriminate against women, especially widows. The government of Zimbabwe should promote customs and practices that favor women’s equal rights to land and other assets, including through inheritance, and engage traditional leaders in discussions about interpretations of customary laws that recognize equality of men and women.
The African Union adopted a new Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa in January 2016. The protocol, which is now open for ratification, creates new legally binding standards for the rights of older people. Article 4 of the Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons requires that states parties “ensure the provision of legal assistance to Older Persons in order to protect their rights.” The protocol calls for states parties to “put in place legislation and other measures that guarantee protection of older women against abuses related to property and land rights; and adopt appropriate legislation to protect the right of inheritance of older women.” It also states that “all necessary measures should be taken to eliminate harmful traditional practices affecting older persons.” Through this protocol, the African Union recognizes the importance of older people’s enjoyment of human rights on an equal basis with others.
Under other international human rights law, countries are required to ensure equal rights for men and women, including equal property and inheritance rights for widows and widowers. Zimbabwe has ratified the regional and international human rights treaties that require the government to eliminate discrimination against women and to guarantee their rights to justice, non-discrimination, equality in marriage, physical security, and property. This includes the African Union’s Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol).
Zimbabwe has taken some important steps to create a legal framework that protects women’s property and inheritance rights, but further reforms are needed. The 2013 constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and gender and states that all persons are equal before the law. The Marriage Act and the Customary Marriages Act require registration of marriages for those marriages that are solemnized according to either act. But the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that at least 70 percent of women living in rural areas are in unregistered customary unions and are living under customary law. Those acts do not apply to these marriages, so people in these marriages currently have no applicable formal legal regime for protection.
Several laws on succession of estates and on maintenance of a deceased person’s family in Zimbabwe appear to provide for equal inheritance rights from spouses for women and men. However, they are out of reach for those many widows who cannot prove that they were married through a marriage registration. They further provide that maintenance payments from the estates are to be administered according to the rules that apply in case of divorce, which excludes property that was acquired by inheritance, custom, or is of “particular sentimental value.” Since men (not women) have typically inherited land and other valuable assets, in practice there are few assets that widows can inherit.
The government of Zimbabwe should do more to bring its laws into line with the constitution, in keeping with the African Union and international human rights frameworks, to protect the rights of all married people regardless of their type of marriage, providing critical protection for older women who are, or may become, widows. While this report focuses on Zimbabwe, violations of the rights of widows are a significant problem in many countries around the world. The international community and individual governments have an obligation to end abuses against widows around the world.