Taking the Law by its Horns

By Godwin Chigwedere
CCMT is currently carrying out an intervention with a community which lies in the heart of Zimbabwe. It is a community that would pass for any other Zimbabwean rural community. The community cannot boast of any extra-ordinary educational facilities or any infrastructural development that would put this community above other communities from other districts and provinces of Zimbabwe. Yet it is a community daring to tackle issues no other rural community has dared in the District or Province.
When the Chief of this community approached CCMT to request for an intervention that would address the plight of women suffering injustices as a result of the application of the Customary Law, the district authorities were perplexed.

This kind of request was strange. It was a topic beyond this ordinary chief. “This Chief is crazy! What exactly does he want?” they asked. “And why don’t the women approach Courts of Law if these issues are bothering them. True, the district had not tackled such a challenge before and, yes, is it not the job of Parliamentarians to debate laws? Yet the Chief would not stop inviting CCMT to intervene. The Chief had attended dialogue platforms facilitated by CCMT and was convinced the CCMT approach and sustained process of engaging stakeholders to interrogate issues was the way to go if Village Heads and men in his community were to appreciate the pain they inflict on women and children each time they make decisions about marriages, inheritance and other customary practices.

But the Council would not budge. The Council saw no need for intervention by an NGO in this process. The Chief would not give up. In one of the meetings, the Chief raised his issue with council for the umpteenth time. This time he decided to use an anecdote; “In my community lives a woman, Miriro, 59 year old and recently divorced mother of two. Her youngest child is 25 years old. The husband has just taken a younger wife and wants Miriro to move out of the matrimonial home where they have lived for 30 years together. The Customary Law cannot protect Miriro. The General Law would be an alternative but Miriro does not have resources to pursue the case in a court of Law which is also very far away from her home. To compound the problem, what benefit could accrue to Miriro if she approaches the General Law. The husband does not have any substantial property and he is basing his decision on customary law”

The chief feels strongly that the Customary Law does not protect women and children. Yet, as a chief he is expected to be the custodian of this law whose weaknesses he is clear about. The government through its endeavour to empower chiefs has made it clear, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that Customary Law and General Law carry the same weight and community members, especially men in rural communities are only too happy, in marital conflict to lean onto the Customary laws expediently much to the disadvantage of women.

And still council was not convinced about how such a challenge could be dealt with!

Playing its mediatory role, CCMT consulted Council to be allowed to carry out a research in the community that would inform on this issue. The data gathering approach entailed that a dialogue platform would be established where the issues would be raised for discussion. Council gave in. Council officials, traditional leaders, women, youth and men would openly raise their observations and recommendations to each other in this platform. The research informed that Miriro was one in hundreds of women who were suffering quietly in the area and that the application of dual legal systems was confusing and disadvantaging women. The passionate views expressed by participants from all sectors have kept council officials riveted to the process

Following the establishment of the dialogue platform, 3 dialogues have taken place. These have brought together, traditional leaders, women, men, and youth. Women have come out strongly to raise their voice on this salient conflict and always they outnumber men in the platforms. The platforms have also brought in other NGO’s to partner CCMT in the dialogues and share ideas and experiences on the two sets of Laws.

What is emerging from the platform is that while the issues initially involved traditional leaders and women, traditional leaders and young people have grabbed the opportunity to raise questions that affect their relationship as well. And more issues are going to emerge. The emerging issues previously unknown and unplanned for have aided justification for such processes in communities.

One village head remarked,“ We have attended other workshops before, but the approach where we actually question the laws, freely argue out our needs as different sectors of communities in such a sustained and enriching manner is new to us.”

The results of this initiative cannot be prejudged but one thing is for sure; the community has opened a new chapter in its life and the District Council can no longer disengage.