Widows stripped of their rights by Aids

When her husband died two months ago, Albertina Come did not only lose him. She also lost their house and belongings acquired through hard work over ten years of marriage.

Come’s husband is among some 97 000 Mozambicans who health authorities say will die of HIV/Aids this year alone. More than 400 000 Mozambicans have died of the disease since 1999, and the death toll is expected to reach over 1,2-million by 2010.

Unfortunately for Come, her late husband’s family blames her for his death. And as punishment, they said, she should not be entitled to any inheritance. “They locked me out of the house, and took all our belongings,” she said.

Come’s plight heightened after her late husband was confined to bed. His relatives decided to move him to his mother’s house, and she was left with no choice but to follow him and look after him. However, as his condition worsened, Come was told to go back to her parents. “They said his health wasn’t improving because of me. That if I stayed far away from him, he would recover.”

He didn’t recover. And Come was not even allowed to go to his funeral. Nor were their two sons aged seven and three. She is currently staying at her sister’s place with the children. “It’s not something I enjoy,” she says.

Come is not alone. Emeldina Ricardo, 25, lost her husband four months ago. She, too, was dispossessed of her properties. And, the money she received from her husband’s workplace to cater for funeral expenses ended up in the hands of her in-laws who used it at their discretion.

After the funeral, her brother in-law took all her husband’s documents. Personal documents are very important as they determine the relationship between the holder and bearer. In this case, the holder can go to a bank and claim any money held in the deceased’s account.

Her brother-in-law said if she wanted any inheritance she should include his youngest son in the list of beneficiaries of the estate of her late husband. The couple had no children, so this would suggest some sort of extortion from an unscrupulous brother in-law.

But Ricardo’s problems do not end just in losing the money. “They’ve threatened me with expulsion from the house because, they said, I didn’t bear my husband any children, and they believe I was the cause of his death,” she said.

Ricardo’s husband died of Aids-related illnesses. She was accused of being unfaithful and passing the virus to him.

Both Come and Ricardo have sought legal redress. But since government does not have legal aid mechanisms in place, the women will have to rely, at least for the time being, on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for support.

The Mozambican Women Lawyers’ Association, an NGO, is already looking into Come and Ricardo’s cases as well as other women’s. General Secretary Orlanda Lampiao said the association started receiving cases related to people living with HIV/Aids, especially women, at the end of 2003. Rights now, Mozambique has only HIV/Aids anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.

“Most of the cases were referred to us by Médécins sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders) and 80% of them are regarding women,” Lampiao said. According to her, all the cases had one common denominator: denial of inheritance to women because of suspicions they infected their spouses with the virus.

“The relatives of the deceased don’t accept sharing the assets because it’s assumed that the woman passed the virus to the man. And what worsens the situation is that sometimes the children are rejected,” she said. “Many women are expelled from their houses, and have no right to compensation.”

Mozambique’s Family Law does not tackle HIV/Aids and inheritance issues head-on, although some clauses mention widowhood. The widow should have been married officially to the deceased in order to be entitled to his estate.

This aspect of sole recognition of a civil marriage has been redressed in a new Family Law which the Mozambican parliament unanimously approved recently. It sweeps away the male chauvinism inherent in the Civil Code inherited from Portuguese colonial rule.

The new law recognises “de facto unions”, which mean that couples in a stable relationship and who do not bother to enter into any kind of marriage have been placed on an equal footing with couples married officially. But the couple should have lived together for at least a year for their marriage to be regarded as a “de facto union”. And the children will have the same protection as children of any marriage. In case of a break up, the man will no longer be able to shrug off responsibility for the children, and may find himself obliged to pay maintenance to his ex-partner.

The new law, which will be published in the official gazette, the Boletim da Republica, will come into effect next year.

Sansao Buque, of Women and Social Welfare department, says women are discriminated against when dividing the estate of the deceased. He urged women to make use of existing channels such as courts, as well as civil societies and family structures to have their grievances addressed.

For Buque, the main problem is ignorance. The majority of 53% of Mozambique’s women lives in rural areas, and as many as 71,2 percent of them are illiterate. “There’s need for the dissemination of the laws, even in local languages,” he said.

This ignorance of laws most often makes women even more vulnerable than they were, he said.

Buque said progress has been made to address some of the issues compounding gender inequality. Ten years after the UN conference on women in the Chinese capital Beijing, more and more women are participating in politics, in decision-making bodies and in economy, he said.

Mozambique is currently adding the final touches to a study commissioned by the United Nations seeking to find the main causes of violence against women, he said. Mozambique has been selected to represent Africa as part of an International Violence Against Women Survey.

“This study can help us understand the reasons for violence against women. It’s not sufficient to say it’s poverty,” he said.

Like Mozambique, the plight of widows is similar in the 13-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) where they are overburdened with raising children.

Orphans are increasingly more likely to be living in female-headed and grandmother households as a result of HIV/Aids, according to the 2004 Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) report.

In five SADC countries — Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland — 15% or more of all orphans became an orphan in 2003, UNAids said.

In Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, more than one in five children will be orphaned by 2010, it warned.

It will, however, take time for SADC countries, most of who are steeped in traditions, to formulate laws to address the issues affecting widows. — IPS

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