Garikayi Chipfunde, Features Correspondent
TWENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Nyembesi* is a very bitter woman. She doesn’t know who exactly to direct her anger and frustration towards but she curses cultural practices that do not protect young girls and make them beneficiaries of their fathers’ estates when they die. Her bitterness emanates from her lived experience.
At seven, Nyembesi lost her parents to a road traffic accident and because she was young and a girl for that matter, she was disinherited of her parents’ property by her father’s relatives. Her parents had left no will.
Nyembesi’s parents had worked so hard to acquire most basics to make life comfortable. They had built a spacious home in the village which was the envy of many.
They had 40 head of cattle and besides the car that they perished in, they had another one. They also had a house in town.
“My parents died in an accident when I was only seven and I was the only child. I don’t vividly remember what happened after their funeral but their property and possessions was a big source of contention among relatives.
“I was withdrawn from a school I was learning in Bulawayo and was taken in by my village aunt whose life is divorced from opulence. She was a single parent and had five children and I became the sixth.
“She could hardly afford to send all of us to school and as a result we would sometimes weed other villagers’ fields for money and or groceries. I dropped out of school at 14 and I settled for marriage at 15.
I am now twenty-two and we are struggling with my husband but it’s better than the burden that I was at my aunt’s home. But marriage, when done desperately, is not a solution to poverty,” she said.
She said some elders in the village have been telling stories about how her father had worked so hard and how the relatives plundered her parents’ property with reckless abandon leaving her with nothing.
“It pains me to hear how my parents had worked so hard acquiring all that could have been used for my upkeep but I lived frugally with my aunt and now no-one can trace how my parents’ sweat was used,” she said.
She got no chance, even on usufruct basis to make use of any of her parents’ properties and believes it’s all about cultural prejudice that draws a line between boys and girls on inheritance.
She said such negative aspects of culture still prevail in most societies because somebody allowed them. “I could possibly have managed to utilise some, or all of the property left by my parents to make my life better but that only became a dream,” she said.
“The homestead was sold to someone else by my uncles and it is said they shared the money while no-one can account for the herd of cattle. There was a time I wanted to take stock of what my father had but my aunt advised me against it fearing that I may be bewitched.”
Nyembesi’s story mirrors how society still believes in some of the cultural practices that seek perpetual oppression of the girl child.
It is, however, slowly dawning on communities in the country that every parent works so hard for their children.
“Every parent struggles to ensure their children live better lives in society. All the investments in property such as homes, cattle among others are done to ensure that in the event of death, the children have somewhere to lean on.
“It’s wrong for someone who is not part of a nuclear family to come and start to decide on the property left by one’s deceased parents, depriving the rightful owners of what belongs to them.
The most vulnerable are women and children who need the protection of the law,” bemoaned one community leader.
One old woman said due to prevailing cultural practices and norms, the boy child, not only from the nuclear family but also the extended families, is preferred to the girl child that society presumes would get married.
“In our culture, girl children are treated as passers-by in their own parents’ homes and therefore do not deserve to inherit property, worse still enjoying it with their husbands.
If the boy child could not be found from the immediate family, any male child from extended families could be allowed to inherit the property. In some situations, paternal muscles are stretched and property is shared among the deceased’s siblings without considering the plight of children, especially girls,” she said.
A legal practitioner and law lecturer Ms Paidamoyo Mukumbiri explained the position of the law regarding inheritance in Zimbabwe.
“The law is very clear when a child is disinherited of her deceased parents’ property. The starting point is that if there is a will, the wishes of the deceased supersede the wishes of everyone else provided that the will is written in a manner that it complies with all formalities.
It has to be signed by the deceased and witnesses and one of the witnesses must not be a beneficiary and also the person who drafts the will must not be a beneficiary, for example if you are a lawyer. If the will complies with all formalities, the law stipulates that you follow what’s in the will,” she said.
She submitted that if there was no will as in the case of Nyembesi, the starting point was to consider the immediate beneficiaries depending on the type of marriage.
“You look at whether parents were married under the Customary Marriage or General Law. If it was Customary Marriage, the Administration of Estates Act stipulates that the property of the deceased belongs to the children and surviving spouse,” she added.
The surviving spouse, she notes, automatically gets the matrimonial home and all household goods in it. She also gets a third of the residue from the matrimonial home.
The children get the rest of the property in equal shares even those born out of wedlock, as long as it is proved that the child in question is the child to the deceased. That, she said is according to the terms of Customary Law.
In the case that the deceased is survived by two wives, Ms Mukumbiri said the Administration of Estates Act stipulates that each of them takes the matrimonial home that they were residing at, at the time of death of the husband. If there is any residue, it is shared among them and the children.
“Other members of the clan or extended family only benefit when there are no children born of the marriage or where there is no spouse. If there is only the surviving spouse, the spouse benefits or if there are children surviving, they share the property equally amongst themselves.
These scenarios also apply to the civil marriage such as Marriage Act Chapter 5:11 which is monogamous,” she said. She noted that the issue of discrimination on the basis of gender is outlawed by the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
She said Sections 56 and 80 of the Constitution were very clear. The concept of preferring a male heir has since been outlawed by the amendment of the Administration of Estates Act of 1997.
Before 1997, the position of the law was that the first born would inherit everything but was amended by the Administration of Estates Act, amendment number 6 of 1997 which stipulates that the heir only inherits a sceptre and cultural artifacts, nothing else.
A sceptre symbolises the name, power and status of the deceased and cultural effects which appear in the form of for instance, blankets or pieces of cloth if the deceased was practising African traditional religion or a Bible if practising Christianity among others, said Ms Mukumbiri.
In the case of Nyembesi, she said her right to legal protection under Section 10 of the Deceased Persons Family Maintenance Act Chapter 6:03 was also violated.
She added that there was a need for awareness campaigns through training and advocacy on ways of protecting of children’s rights which should also involve the perpetrators and victims of human rights abuse.
Traditional and other community leaders also need to be conscientised about the plight of the girl child and other vulnerable groups in society, such as children with disabilities.
They also need to be empowered to stop or punish any violations of children’s rights as they are perpetrated in their areas of jurisdiction.