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Namibian Widows Suffer More Than the Loss of Their Spouses

While a woman is secluded in mandatory mourning, her husband's relatives can come in and take everything she has.

June 01, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

OKAKARARA, Namibia — Francina Tjonguze was pregnant with her 16th child when her husband died and his family tossed her out of their home.

She accepted her fate quietly. She didn't shout or rail against the injustice of it but tried to accept her lot, afraid of making powerful enemies or bringing on the curses of evil spirits. But in her heart, she is still bitter about what was done to her in those lonely days of 1990, that mourning period when everything was taken.

"I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone for a week or so. They took everything," she said. "Those people didn't respect me. When I was chased away, I was just frustrated and disappointed because that husband of mine was the only breadwinner, and I was left alone struggling with all those kids.

"I didn't have the power to say, 'No, I won't go.' "

The 51-year-old widow and her family haven't recovered from the blow. Today she sits in the dust outside her shack on the outskirts of Okakarara surrounded by more than two dozen children and grandchildren, all of whom she must somehow feed. They live in abject poverty.

In theory, Namibian women have equal rights under the country's constitution, which aims to redress past gender inequalities. But in reality, village chiefs and customary or tribal law determine all things in rural life, including the most contentious issue of all, the seizure of property from newly widowed women that leaves them homeless and destitute. Even widows in cities and towns aren't immune.

Under customary law, marital property is considered the husband's, meaning widows are left with what they brought to the marriage, usually a few pots and pans.

As soon as a man dies, his children rush to take and hide as much of the property as they can, before their father's brothers and nephews arrive for it and the family home.

There is not much a widow can do during the crucial weeks after her husband's death: Tradition dictates that she must lie in a closed room facing a wall, her head covered with a black cloth, speaking to no one. Often she emerges from the mourning period to find everything but her cooking pots stolen, the in-laws waiting pointedly for her to leave the house.

In 2003, the High Court ordered an overhaul to define inheritance rights more clearly, but critics say the government, worried about offending the chiefs and other traditional power brokers, backed down on reform and left the situation as murky as ever.

"Dispossession is widespread simply because women are considered to be weaker. It's rife and it's not going to change overnight," said Mercedes Ovis of the Legal Assistance Center, a nongovernmental group based in Windhoek, the capital. She described the government's new law as "grossly inadequate," saying it did nothing to protect widows from the seizure of property, including the money in a husband's bank account.

The recent estates and succession amendment bill, passed with little debate, doesn't clarify inheritance rights but vests powers to determine inheritance issues in the master of the High Court, who can delegate decisions to court magistrates.

Women's rights activists Juanita Tjitere and Olga Tjiurutue would like to discuss these and other issues with chiefs and the women in their communities, but of about 50 village chiefs in the region around Okakarara, only three or four will let them talk to the women.

"Most are really traditional, really conservative," Tjitere said. When the activists apply to visit, she said, the chief usually summons them for an interrogation on their intentions and program.

"He doesn't want to hear these issues, and he argues with you in front of the community and he is the respected chief, so you have to be quiet. They don't want change, because it is interfering with their culture," she said.

"Often the chief is against it, and you get confused and ashamed in front of him," Tjiurutue said. "We haven't been able to change things much outside the town."

The struggle by women's activists to even begin a conversation about change, let alone educate women on their rights, is one reason rural Namibian widows remain powerless and poverty-stricken.

Tjitere, 23, grew up in a rural area, steeped in the Herero culture. She was taught that in seeking to achieve ideal beauty, a girl should look to the cow. She should walk slowly, head down, and keep her voice to a soft, lowing murmur.

As Tjitere leaped up to demonstrate, her whole being conveyed the opposite image: bright, low-cut top; bright, dancing eyes; direct gaze; sharp movements.

Then, as if someone had hit the slow-mo button on a remote control, she fell into a gentle amble, feet shuffling softly, eyes downcast. You don't speak unless a man speaks to you. You never go barefoot.

Only at school, she said, did she start to pick up new ideas.

"I started getting broader thinking. I didn't necessarily have to walk like a cow. I had my rights." She wanted to help other women find freedom, as she had.

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