Getting widowed in Zimbabwe is life altering, not just the trauma of losing a spouse, but the treatment from those still alive that comes with it. What is currently playing out with, Elizabeth Tsvangirai, the late MDC leader’s widow, and his family is a script that is all too familiar. It all has to do with inheritance (read: greed) and especially excluding the wife from it.
How widows are treated is so many issues wrapped up in one: women’s rights, constitutional prerogatives, criminal law, and cultural oppression.
The treatment of widows reflects the precarious position of women in society and within the families. Widows find themselves at loggerheads with their in-laws – men and women alike. There are whispers of how she was an unfit wife, so doesn’t deserve anything that ‘belonged’ to her husband. Unbelievably so, in 2018 this archaic and unjust practice of widows being treated as undeserving of respect, empathy and civility during their time of grief is still rampant.
Once widowed, everything about the woman’s life is scrutinised, including how she grieves.
Some relatives bring up negative aspects of her marriage (real or imagined) to bolster claims of disinheritance. The same, however, seldom happens to widowers. He still remains in full control of his destiny, rarely does he need to worry about losing all his belongings including the house where he lives with his children, nobody tells him how to dress, behave, or mourn. In fact, most widowers are encouraged to quickly re-marry and applauded once they do so, because society feels the man must have ‘someone to take care of him and the children’.
Patriarchy ensures a man’s life is always comfortable.
In Zimbabwe, the Deceased Person’s Family Maintenance Act aims to protect spouses from losing all their possessions after their partner dies. However, there is a continued violation of such laws because of an entrenched patriarchal tradition.
The Zimbabwe Administration of Estates Act stipulates that if a spouse dies without a will, the surviving partner inherits their immovable property. For those married under customary law, proof of such a union has to be provided and courts look to the in-laws, the very people who stand to gain, to confirm the marriage. This leaves women at a disadvantage and at the mercy of their in-laws. A further law review is needed so as to protect the rights of all married people regardless of their type of marriage.
Dispossession leads to widows becoming destitute overnight, it opens the door to exploitation and abuse followed by a vicious cycle of poverty. Sometimes these women feel they have no option but to earn an income any way they can. This can, in some instances, mean going into sex work or working menial jobs for little money that barely provides for the family’s upkeep. Dispossession does not only happen in poor settings as most folks believe, this criminality also takes place within affluent, highly educated families. Educated well-off women are also vulnerable to cultural practices that leave them with nothing once their husbands die. They will have access to information, knowledge of the law but they will still find themselves left with nothing. 
This isn’t just a Zimbabwean problem.
It is global.
For this reason, the United Nations has an International Widows day that is marked annually on the 23rd of June, a day of action that was created to address the ‘poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents in many countries’. This is a matter that rightly calls for international dialogue on how society deems it fit to strip a woman of her material possessions once she loses her spouse.
Traditional views on the role of marriage and most conspicuously women in society still hold sway. As much as it’s a crime to steal, abuse, or threaten any individual in a civilised society, once this behaviour is perpetrated against a widow it seems to cease being worthy of repercussions from law and especially within the family. Stripping widows of possessions seems socially acceptable with the criminals getting off scot-free or with just a slap of the wrist. There is hope, however. There are organisations that assist widows to fight for their rights such as Legal Resources Foundation and the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association.
‘and oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless. And let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart’. – Zechariah 7:10
During the mourning period we are inundated with religion, pastors speak, hymns are sung, bibles opened… yet in the midst of these fervent calls for goodness & mercy, in-laws will behave in the most heinous ways towards the widow. The death of a husband can become her undoing.
Where is our ubuntu?
Being a widow is not a crime.
Grieving women need our compassion and not to be brutalised by people motivated by self serving greed.