MUTARE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Sheila Chimoyo’s husband died in 2011, it didn’t take long before accusations started to fly.
Her in-laws claimed she had used witchcraft to kill her husband, and seized the small house where she lived with her two children in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.
“I was accused of bewitching my husband. I am not a witch and I did not kill my husband. It was a terrible experience because everything happened when I was still mourning,” she said.
“I hope and pray other women will not go through what I went through,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But Chimoyo is not alone. Many widows in Zimbabwe lose property to in-laws, even on the day their husband dies.
Many Zimbabwean widows face insurmountable obstacles defending their property or taking legal steps to reclaim it, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published last January.
Fending off relatives while mourning their husbands and selling assets like cattle to pay court fees to fight eviction were among the challenges widows face, the report said.
“This is a problem I am familiar with since I am a widow that suffered the same fate,” Zimbabwe legislator Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She was widowed after her husband died from injuries sustained in a botched armed robbery at her home.
Even though she is a influential politician and a former government minister, in 2010 she signed over her late husband’s estate to his relatives after they hounded her for months – both on her doorstep and in the courts.
The country’s 2012 national census counted more than half a million widows in the country, most of them over 60 years old.
And at least 70 percent of women in rural areas are in unregistered traditional marriages and are living under customary law, say rights groups, which offers no protection when it comes to property.
“Many widows lose property on the day their husbands die, whilst they are mourning,” Misihairabwi-Mushonga said.
“Relatives begin to take livestock from the widow and on extreme cases will insist that if she refuses (to marry another member of the family) she can’t continue to stay in the family homestead.”
In cities, this also includes cars, furniture and banishing the widow from the matrimonial home.
“Once in court, widows without an official record of their marriage, if it was a customary union, face a lot of challenges. Courts look to the in-laws – the very people who stand to gain – to confirm the marriage, putting widows at the mercy of their husband’s family,” said the Human Rights Watch report.
In 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new constitution which has provisions for equal rights for women, including for inheritance and property.
But, in practice, the report said, existing laws only apply to widows in officially registered marriages.
The ousting last month of former President Robert Mugabe brought to power his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. It was not clear what steps Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe government would take to protect the land rights of widows.
The new Minister of Justice, Ziyambi Ziyambi, said the government would look into the issue.
“I am only a day in office but we will look into the problems and see how best we can address them,” Ziyambi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Another widow, Fortunate Mhuri from Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe said her late husband had a successful business selling auto parts.
When he committed suicide in 2012, she was devastated by his death, she said.
“We were a happy family when my husband was still there but when he died his sister told me to leave the house,” Mhuri said.
”I had three children and did not have anywhere to go. I was told by my husband’s relatives to leave everything which we had worked for with my husband.
Mhuri now lives with her children in a small rented house and does menial jobs to make ends meet.
Sheila Chimoyo, who was accused of being a witch, managed to pick-up the pieces and now runs a small import business selling clothes, linen and kitchen utensils.
“I buy different items from our neighboring countries for resale in Zimbabwe and I can now manage to feed my two children and send them to school,” she said.