MELBOURNE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For a widow in Zambia, the death of a husband can often mean the loss of a home, land and other property.
According to tradition in the southern African country, the surviving siblings of a deceased man not only have the right to marry his widow, but they may also lay claim to the estate.
In Zambia, the custom was enshrined in law with the 1929 Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act, which allows a widow to be “inherited” – whether she consents to it or not – by her deceased husband’s family.
But critics say it’s a law that has overstayed its welcome and must go.
“It’s a tradition that had very good intentions and it had very good results at the time. But in the era of HIV, there is quite a lot of threat, there is quite a lot of risk,” said Michael Chanda, deputy project director of the USAID-funded Support to the HIV/AIDS Response in Zambia (SHARe II) programme.
In the absence of a state-funded welfare system, widow inheritance was a way of ensuring that a widow and her children were taken care of by the extended family – that they had a roof over their heads, food on the table and school fees paid.
However, today there’s growing recognition that the tradition hurts women, according to researchers and lawyers behind a drive to get the law repealed.
Wife or widow inheritance is not unique to Zambia. It is practised as far west as Nigeria and as far east as Kenya, often in mostly rural communities. The process is often sealed with a ritual of “sexual cleansing” in which the widow is expected to have sex with one of her in-laws in the belief it will free her from her husband’s spirit. A woman who has been “cleansed” is then culturally free to remarry.
In Zambia, opponents of the custom argue it deprives women of their right to property, entrenches gender inequality and exposes widows, inheritors and the inheritors’ wives to an increased risk of HIV in a country where HIV remains the biggest killer of people aged 15 to 49.
Zambia’s last demographic survey in 2007 showed the HIV prevalence rate was 14.3 percent in the 15-49 age group. It was higher for females – 16.1 percent against 12.3 percent for males.
“YOU BELONG TO US”
As part of SHARe II’s goal to support the Zambian government’s efforts to improve HIV/AIDS policy in the southern African nation, Chanda and his colleagues canvassed more than 3,000 people, including tribal, legal and religious leaders, and found 85 percent in favour of a repeal of the law.
“The chiefs know when a member of their community has died. They bury their people who have died of HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, and have felt the impact of HIV/AIDS firsthand. They care very deeply about what is happening,” said Muka Chikuba, SHARe II project director.
“Most of our traditional leaders understand the risk and they really would like to outlaw this, but their hands are tied,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Zambian capital Lusaka.
The survey, done in conjunction with the Zambian Law Development Commission, was presented on Tuesday at an international conference on AIDS in Melbourne.
The researchers will report their findings to Zambia’s justice minister later this year with the hope it will lead to a parliamentary motion to repeal the law.
If successful, they say more women may be spared what many widows describe as a degrading and humiliating experience.
“Women who complained of how they were taken advantage of were told: ‘It is our right. As men we can do what we want. We paid (a dowry) for you. We paid a lot of money, a lot of cattle to your parents. We’re not releasing you. You belong to us’,” said Justin Chitengi, SHARe II legal and policy manager.