When massive gold deposits were discovered about a decade ago in Chimanimani, eastern Zimbabwe, the rural district became famous for attracting hundreds of artisanal miners from across the country every year.
Wealthy small-scale prospectors regularly offer residents generous deals for their land, locals say. To many widows selling their unused land, that kind of money can be life-changing and a source of greater autonomy.
But in recent years, widows in Chimanimani have found that taking a deal can have consequences. Many say they have been taken to tribal courts by their husbands’ families for selling portions of their land.
“I feel bruised,” said Mavis, a 63-year-old widow from Haroni village who did not want to disclose her surname.
“I lived in peace as a widow in my home until last year, when I sold an unwanted acre of my late husband’s land to korokoza,” she said, using a colloquial term for an artisanal gold miner.
He paid her $2,000 in cash. “All hell broke loose,” Mavis explained.
When her male relatives found out about the sale, they reported her to the tribal court.
“The accusations were insane. They said I bewitched my husband, even though he died way back in 1979, in the colonial war,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The cultural norms of the Ndau people, who make up the majority of the population in Chimanimani, forbid widows from owning land their husbands leave behind or selling that land unless a male family member controls the transaction.
As her uncles laid claim to her late husband’s property, Mavis joined a growing number of widows whose male family members have denied them the right to sell land they are supposed to legally inherit.
“In our village, I am the fourth widow since 2017 to be brought to (tribal court) for selling land without male approval,” she said.
Her case is still ongoing.
According to Zimbabwe’s latest census, which was conducted in 2012, there are more than half a million widows in the country.
Throughout rural areas, widows routinely find themselves harassed and exploited by in-laws claiming the property their husbands left behind, rights activists say.
O’bren Nhachi, an activist and researcher focusing on natural resources and governance, said the problem has gotten worse in Chimanimani over the past few years, as the gold rush has pushed up the value of land.
“Chimanimani was a poor backwater district until gold was discovered. Suddenly, local land prices shot up because artisanal gold diggers are paying huge sums to snap up plots,” he said. “This has brought conflict, with male family members using patriarchy as a tool to dispossess widows of potential land sales income.”
Although Zimbabwe’s constitution gives women and men equal rights to property and land, in many rural communities tradition overrides national legislation, experts say.
Tribal custom dictates that chiefs are the custodians of communal land, and responsible for allocating land to villagers.
“A woman cannot sell land unless she has obtained permission from my Committee of Seven,” said Mutape Moyo, a tribal headman in Chimanimani, referring to the group of elders — all men — who hear cases in the local customary court.
But this makes it unclear who has legal ownership of land, Nhachi said.
“The laws of the country say the state is the owner of all land. Tribal chiefs are merely ‘custodians’. Does custodian mean they are owners?”
In a country where women carry out 70 percent of the agricultural work – according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization – Nhachi said more women need to be made aware of how to legally hold onto their land if their husbands die.
He said he would like to see the government implement legal awareness programs and properly define who owns and distributes land in rural Zimbabwe.
Provincial administrator Edward Seenza, the head civil servant of Manicaland province, where Chimanimani is located, said that if widows lose their land in tribal courts, there are ways for them to appeal and reverse the ruling.
“If anyone is unhappy with a village head’s decision, they can speak to a chief,’ he said. “Where this does not produce the desired result, they can take their complaint to the district administrator and further up to my office.”
But activists say few rural women know they have that option. And those who do are often too poor or too scared to travel to a government office.
Seenza said that so far, not one woman has come to him to appeal a tribal court ruling.
And without legal help, widows denied the right to sell their land can be left devastated.
Rejoice, a 38-year-old widow from Chipinge district, sold her late husband’s mango orchard two years ago to a wealthy gold digger for $4,000. She needed the money to pay for medication to treat a kidney tumor.
Her father-in-law took her to tribal court.
“I was ordered to refund the buyer, in cash, with punitive interest; pay court fines for ‘disrespect’; and surrender the rest of the land to male family custodians,” said Rejoice, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
She paid back the buyer as much as she could, but still owes him some money. And her husband’s family is still fighting for ownership of the land, she added.
The court told her that if she does not honor the ruling, she could be thrown out of her home.
“I will end up a destitute, living on the roadside,” she said. “The thought of this gives me sleepless nights.”