"I lost everything that I had accumulated in 14 years of marriage," said Serena Shangheta, 45, whose husband died of heart ailments in 1999. "To add to the pain, they (her husband's relatives) expected me to sleep with his young brother, to be cleansed and inherited. I refused to be treated like a piece of furniture."
This mother of 12 was speaking at a recent meeting of widows and traditional leaders in Okakarara, a sleepy rural village in the hills of north-central Namibia. The meeting, organized by the Windhoek-based legal aid group Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), focused on the widow victims of 'estate grabbing'. LAC has been organizing training sessions on inheritance rights for widows and for traditional leaders - administrators of customary laws - as Namibia struggles to find a compromise between common law and traditional (customary) law.
Although LAC itself handles only a handful of estate-grabbing cases every month, it estimates that the actual number of cases is quite high. In a country where only 45 per cent of the women are literate, most women in rural areas do not have access to information on their rights, or are unwilling to challenge age-old tribal practices.
For the Herero tribe of Okakarara, 290 km from the capital, Windhoek, the death of a husband does not mean only the loss of a loved one. In this cattle-raising tribe of about 100,000 people, a new widow often emerges from seven days of secluded mourning to find that cattle, goats and chickens, tables and chairs, clothes and shoes have been looted. The Herero are one of the biggest tribes in Namibia, a country of about two million people.
According to the customary law of the tribe, all material possessions belong to the husband, leaving women with only what they brought to the marriage - 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. And there is not much the widow can do during the crucial week 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. It is during the mourning period, women rights activists say, that inheritance decisions are often made and a family's property seized.
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, especially when she refuses to be 'cleansed' and 'inherited'. Teresia Tjukudzju, 24 and childless, told the LAC meeting how she could not remarry because of her refusal to be cleansed by sleeping with her late husband's 68-year-old older brother. "Now, other men are afraid the spirit of my dead husband will kill them, but I had to save my honor."
In Herero culture, ideal beauty is modeled on cows: the women are expected to wear head scarves that look like horns, walk slowly with their head down, wear long dresses that cover even their feet, and keep their voices to a soft, lowing murmur. They are expected not to speak to men unless spoken to.
Culture notwithstanding, at least in theory, the country's Constitution gives men and women equal rights. Namibia's Married Persons Equality Act of 1996 and the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 attempt to improve the lot of women by allowing widows to remain on common household land.
In reality, though, village chiefs and customary or tribal laws determine all things in rural life, including the most contentious issue of all - the seizure of property from newly widowed women, leaving them homeless and destitute. "Women will not say anything, and men will order, rubber stamp and enforce whatever decision one man makes," says Olga Tjiurutue, a women's rights activist based in Okakarara.
Although Namibia does have laws protecting inheritance rights in civil marriages, in a largely rural country, most marriages are customary law unions - which means they fall under tribal conventions.
For Mercedes Ovis, an independent researcher who has researched inheritance rights, the answer lies somewhere between customary law and common law. "There is need for a change in mindset. Traditional leaders still lack information on how to balance the two systems of law. One approach is perhaps to maintain the dual system in terms of law reform, and not to completely discard customary law, thus relegating them to status of mere paper laws that are not operationalized."
In most African traditional societies, inheritance is often governed by centuries-old practices that can be incredibly complex, in which intricate kinship systems are used to determine inheritance rights under customary law, tending to limit or cancel the inheritance rights of widows and orphans.
Since last year, the government has been debating the Succession Bill, which could protect widows and children from estate-grabbing. In late 2005, Justice Minister Pendukeni Ithana had said that the Succession Bill would guarantee surviving spouses a portion of the property if their partners died intestate. It would also ensure that surviving spouses had lifetime rights over household goods and land used by the extended family.
But gender rights groups are afraid that the legislation will not be properly enforced. "Laws are just pieces of paper giving rights only in writing," says Liz Frank, Director of Sister Namibia, a Windhoek-based gender rights organization. "Women don't know about their rights, let alone the fact that they can't be forced into marriage." She also points to the absence of legislation enforcement mechanisms.
In Okakarara, some female aid workers are trying to teach men to draw up wills before they die. When a dead man has a will, Namibian law allows it to be enforced by a court. But even then, women face strong resistance from traditional leaders. "These leaders say that we have invaded their space by talking about inheritance," says Okakarara's women's rights advocacy voluntary worker Joynitha Tjiteere. "Sometimes they walk out of meetings."
There's another way out. A small number of couples, mostly in Windhoek and Namibia's larger towns, choose to marry without pooling their assets. In such marriages, a widow retains legal ownership of her property - a sort of prenuptial agreement.
Rosina Mabakeng, from the ministry of gender equality and child welfare, says more mechanisms are necessary to stop the practice of estate-grabbing. "There have been calls for the establishment of a body specifically dealing with widows in rural areas and we are looking into that, among other ideas," she says.