Most marriages in Zimbabwe are customary rather than legal unions that, if ended by divorce or death, leave the women empty handed. But a court ruling last year granted women the right to equal property if the marriage is registered.
Thirty-nine-year-old Juliet Gwenere’s customary marriage of 12 years ended in 2016. She was left with five children to care for and no property or support from her ex-husband.
She was forced to move in with her mother in Chitungwiza town, about 40 kilometers southeast of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
Gwenere wants her three daughters not to make the same mistake she made when they get married.
“I encourage my children to go to school. Just to empower yourself. At least if you are empowered you can stand on your two feet. That’s what I always tell my kids, that’s what I always encourage other women; to stand on their own two feet,” Gwenere said.
Most marriages in Zimbabwe are customary, unregistered unions that give no legal protection or inheritance rights to women if the union ends. However a Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruling last year granted women the right to equal property - if the marriage is registered.
Hilda Mahumucha, from Women Lawyers of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe, says that since the ruling her organization is noticing more women becoming aware of their rights.
“This has been a development in the positive direction, especially for women who had been disadvantaged for years. Most of our clients who visited our offices expressed their confidence in the judiciary system, especially with regard to their right to protection, which is a constitutional right. They even expressed that they even have (the) right to equality with their male counterparts unlike in the past when the burden of proof was placed on the woman to indicate how she contributed towards the acquisition of the matrimonial property,” Mahumucha said.
But rights advocates say women, especially in the countryside, need to be educated on the importance of marriage registration.
Maureen Sibanda, head of governance for U.N. Women in Zimbabwe said, “We have a lot of work out for us or civil society. Gender equality advocates need to continue with advocacy. We need to engage with lawmakers, we need to engage with judges in terms of the promotion of women’s rights, on judiciary activism, even interpretation of some of the normative frameworks that are out there that promote women’s rights.”
While Zimbabwe’s wheels of justice turned too slowly for women like Juliet Gwenere, there is at least a more hopeful future for equality and legal protection for her daughters.