Zimbabwe has ushered in a new marriage law that gives equal rights to “girlfriends” and women in registered unions upon the dissolution of a marriage or death of the husband.
Marriage Act (Chapter 5:15) was signed May 27 and took effect at the end of August.
“The most notable changes in the new law are the recognition of civil and customary law marriage as the same. As under customary law marriages, parties were not considered to be married at law,” Rumbidzai Venge, a lawyer based in the nation’s capital of Harare, told Anadolu Agency.
“Upon the death of a husband or dissolution of the marriage, very little could be experienced in terms of property rights, particularly by women who were disenfranchised in a lot of these unions,” he said.
Unlike in the past, the new law recognizes civil partnerships, which are not marriages but are recognized only for property sharing.
A civil partnership is a relationship between a man and woman older than the age of 18 who live together on a genuine domestic basis. The union can co-exist with any other marriage, including a civil union.
“So, when the relationship is terminated, any one of these two can use the civil partnership provision, to get protection which is also accorded to married people that are divorcing,” Abigail Matsvayi, director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, told the Turkish news agency. “A Matrimonial Causes Act will be used to determine the dissolution of the relationship, and how property is shared.”
The use of the Matrimonial Causes Act was not possible for any marriage apart from civil marriage in the past.
Judith Kavu, a member of the Zimbabwe Widows, Widowers and Orphans Association, told Anadolu Agenct that she was happy with the new law.
“As an organization that deals with victims of unregistered marriages in most cases, we welcome this new law as it is progressive as it is in line with the principle of equality stated in the Constitution and our laws,” said Kavu.
The new law has brought a radical change to marriage laws in Zimbabwe with the Marriage Act (Chapter 5:11) and Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07) being repealed.
Civil marriages under the Marriage Act were considered superior and handled differently upon divorce. But now all marriages are treated equally, giving Zimbabweans in other marriages more rights to inherit property.
“In terms of inheritance, it just means that those in a civil partnership are now on equal footing with other marriage regimes upon the dissolution of their marriages. There is concern out there that the new law is now giving rights to ‘girlfriends’ but in Zimbabwe, 80% of unions are not registered and most women are in unions where they are having kids but still being regarded as girlfriends,” legal analyst Zoro Nkomo told Anadolu Agency.
“Most women in Zimbabwe have not had their lobola, or bride price, paid, yet they have built homes and acquired properties with their husbands, and often the wives and even children sired out of these unions are left out of the inheritance. This is what this new law seeks to resolve,” added Zoro.
Victims of old marriage laws
Spencer Rupiya, is a 22-year-old orphan struggling to get the rights to his parents’ house in Harare.
He became homeless at 15 when his father died. His relatives argued that his father was not legally married to his mother because her lobola was not paid.
“I could not believe their claim because my mother used to tell us how she and dad saved money to build the house. But all my efforts have not produced any results, so far,” Spencer told Anadolu Agency as he celebrated the new law.
Kavu’s organization is dealing with similar challenges as Spencer is facing owing to gaps created by old marriage laws.
“We have been dealing with widows who are losing properties, vehicles and even savings just because they are considered girlfriends in the absence of lobola.
The “unregistered unions have always been there but there were no laws to empower widows and even orphans from such unions,” she said.
“Most of these widows are old and freak and can’t prove they were married, so the new marriage law is giving such powerless, so-called ‘girlfriends’ in the eyes of the in-laws, the right to inherit,” said Zoro.
Apart from recognizing all marriages, the new law outlaws child marriages by setting a minimum age of 18 for marriages and criminalizes anyone involved in child marriage