HARARE, Zimbabwe – For many Zimbabwean women, the death of a husband means much more than losing a spouse.
What follows is usually a rush by in-laws for property, stripping the widow and her children bare, a phenomenon described by Human Rights Watch in a report launched Tuesday as "profound injustice."
Zimbabwe's inheritance laws stipulate that a surviving spouse and children should be the principal beneficiaries of an estate.
In reality, widows are forced to scrounge for survival, in many instances left without a roof over their heads because in-laws grab anything from houses to agricultural plots, livestock and even food stocks, said Bethany Brown, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in the rights of older people.
"It means, for some, losing everything," she said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 widows for the report, whose findings and recommendations were accepted by the government, according to Ivan Dumba, the principal director in the ministry of women's affairs, gender and community development.
Over 580,000 of this southern African country's 13 million people are widows, with most of them over 60 years old, according to government statistics agency Zimstat.
Zimbabwe is still pretty much a man's world in terms of property ownership and earning power. Just 14 percent of women are formally employed while 99 percent of employed managers are male, according to the non-government organization Gender Links.
Traditionally, males own the family property. The courts handle a steady stream of cases where widows battle to recover property from in-laws.
"The majority of widows have no resources to justice because they cannot even afford the bus fare to the nearest court, never mind the other costs associated with seeking the case through. They suffer in silence," said Lucia Masuka-Zanhi of Legal Resources Foundation, an NGO that has set up offices in some rural areas to help widows.
Even so-called powerful women are vulnerable to the traditional inheritance practices.
Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, an opposition member of parliament, was a cabinet minister when she was stripped of her property following her husband's death in 2009. She said she had to eventually give up the case, ceding houses, cars and household items.
"I am an activist, I had access to information, I had the best lawyer, I had access to the courts, at that particularly time I was a cabinet minister. And yet I woke up one morning and I had nothing, absolutely nothing except a suitcase," she said Tuesday.
Dumba, the gender ministry official, said government had engaged traditional leaders to help eradicate practices that disempower widows.
"The winds of change are blowing globally. We need to move with the winds of change," he said.