Zimbabwe divorce law spurs women’s fight for property

Zimbabwe divorce law spurs women’s fight for property

Like most marriages in the country’s rural areas, Tshuma’s had been a customary, unregistered union in which everything she brought to the marriage was considered her husband’s property, the mother of two told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In a country where women are largely treated as dependents of men, a ruling by Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court in June that entitles married couples to an equal share of their property upon divorce was hailed as historic by women’s rights advocates. Now, they are encouraging women – especially in rural areas – to register their marriages and working to spread awareness about the new law, to tackle what is considered by many as one of the main barriers to women’s access to land and property. “Traditionally, women are regarded as kids,” Tshuma, 38, said in a phone interview from her parents’ home in Tsukuru village, where she and her children have been living since the divorce in 2013. “That mentality has to change if the country is serious about addressing gender inequality.” Before the new law, women often found themselves trapped in failing or abusive marriages, knowing that divorce could leave them with no financial security, said Melissa Ndlovu, programmes manager at the non-profit Emthonjeni Women’s Forum. By freeing women from relying on their partners for money, the new law provides them with a sense of security, helps them support the education and health of their children, and reduces incidents of violence against women, Ndlovu said. “The implementation of this law is important as a woman’s ability to own, inherit and control land and property is vital to her ability to access resources and participate in the economy,” she said. TRADITIONAL BELIEFS Land is unevenly distributed in Zimbabwe, where progress for women’s land rights has been “very slow”, according to the Gender and Land Rights Database compiled by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In a 2017 report, the FAO noted that 36% of women and 36% of men in Zimbabwe own land either solely or jointly with another family member. But, of those, only 11% of women are sole landowners – compared with 22% of men – “suggesting that when women own land they are more likely to share the ownership rights with another family member.” Zimbabwe’s constitution gives women and men equal rights to property and land, but in many rural communities tradition overrides national legislation, say legal experts. The country has also signed various regional and international conventions and declarations giving women the same rights as men, noted Thubelihle Ncube, a legal expert with the anti-corruption charity Transparency International Zimbabwe. “Everyone has a right to buy, own and sell all forms of property, regardless of gender and marital status. All these declarations forbid placing women at a disadvantage,” Ncube said. The biggest obstacle to many rural women owning property or land is the traditional belief that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” she

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