When the ‘vultures’ circle
MASERU – “DON’T feel disheartened Neria. The Lord is with you
“Losing a husband requires a strong heart “Life is full of trials and tribulations, mind the winds of temptations
“Women are often ill-treated, living like orphans.”
Many in Lesotho would not guess those are the lyrics of Oliver Mtukudzi’s Neria, a sorrowful song in which a brother encourages his recently widowed sister to be brave.
Similarly, only a few might remember that Neria was originally a soundtrack to a harrowing 1993 movie that explores the experience of a widow.
The in-laws harass her and loot everything she owns. Their justification is that the property ‘belongs’ to their deceased son.
Elsewhere in Africa attitudes towards widows have changed since Neria, the song and the movie, were released. Yet in Lesotho, where ironically Neria is like an anthem, little has changed.
There is a surreal incongruence between the way we have embraced the song and how we continue to do exactly what it speaks against: the ill-treatment of widows.
For many women in Lesotho the death of a husband is the beginning of fierce battles over property. It usually ends in destitution.
Reprieve, when it does come, is in the form of court orders granted after long-drawn and costly fights.
Others just gave up and move on with their life of misery because they cannot afford a lawyer.
It will probably take generations and huge interventions from the government to change the way widows are treated.
But that doesn’t mean women are standing arms akimbo, waiting for a saviour to change their plight.
The Maseru Women Senior Citizens Association thinks it can do its bit in the fight against the abuse of widows. The solution, the association believes, lies in educating people about the rights of women.
So in recent weeks the association has been on an awareness campaign in villages in Maseru.
’Malebohang Molete, the association’s president, says the idea is to educate women about their rights so they are prepared when the fights start.
They also invite experts, lawyers and advocacy groups to teach women to “defend themselves against greedy relatives”.
So far workshops have been held in Motimposo, Ha Thetsane and Linakotseng. Molete says they will have more events in the next few weeks.
Recent cases in the High Court illustrate the predicament most widows face.
In the first case ’Mahalio Khoetsa-Sekoala of Teyateyaneng is suing her three step daughters and mother-in-law over her husband’s estate.
In November 1998 Khoetsa-Sekoala married Thibello Sekoala, a widower who already had three daughters, in community of property.
In an affidavit Khoetsa-Sekoala says after Thibello Sekoala’s death in May 2015 his mother and daughters took his passport and death certificate so they could claim benefits without her knowledge.
What is at stake here is a job at Harmony Bambanani Gold Mine where Sekoala’s heir can replace him.
“I was detailed by Berea branch of TEBA to submit documents of my late husband….in order for Harmony Bambanani to facilitate my employment by implementing their policy to replace my husband in their employment,” she says.
Because the documents were with her mother-in-law and step-daughters, she asked her attorneys to prepare an affidavit setting out her circumstances and submitted it to Harmony Bambanani.
She was advised to get a letter from the Master of the High Court, where she learnt that “the children of my husband were also vying for that employment and have submitted certain documents from the District Administrator of Berea citing I was only the girlfriend to their father”.
She tells the court that the Berea District Administrator “had issued them with a letter introducing them as heiress” based on “inaccurate information and sophistries tailored to mislead”.
Khoetsa-Sekoala says they created an impression that “I do not exist notwithstanding that my marriage certificate vindicates my rights to the contested estate in issue”.
In another case, ’Mahlompho Kaota of Ha-Tebeli is suing her three step-children who also allegedly want to use her husband James Kaota’s death certificate, passport and employment documents to claim benefits.
Kaota tells the court that the eldest step-son, Kaota Kaota, snatched the documents from her at the TEBA office and ran away.
They had gone to TEBA, a labour recruitment company owned by South African mining companies, to submit the documents to get terminal benefits.
When she went to the police to report the crime, she was told to go back to TEBA because the incident had happened in its premises. TEBA officials advised her to open a civil case against Kaota.
’Mahlompho says her husband had no will appointing his children with his late wife, ’Makaota Kaota, to be heiress.
“This was completely bona fide and in the interest of the estate as he had made them only beneficiaries of their due portions as contemplated in the Beneficiary Nomination Form,” ’Mahlompho adds.
’Mahlompho has attached a letter of evidence that when she was married the Kaota family paid bohali (bride price).
She claims that the half-children want to eject her out of her house.
Such things happen against widows despite that the Land Act, 2010, section 10 (1) provides that “where persons who are married in community of property either under civil, customary or any other law and irrespective of the date in which the marriage was entered into, any title to immovable property allocated to or acquired by anyone of them shall be deemed to be allocated to or acquired by both partners, and any title to such property shall be held jointly by both.”
The SADC Gender and Development Protocol, to which Lesotho is a signatory, says “the State shall ensure that widows shall have the right to continue to live in the matrimonial house after her husband’s death”.
It also calls on states to protect widows against all forms of violence and discrimination based on her status while having the right to an equitable share in the inheritance of the property of her late husband.
Under the Laws of Lerotholi, beneficiaries are identified by their families, and presented before chiefs in the form of letters signed by the families and stamped.
The beneficiaries will then be referred to principal chiefs who in turn, refer them to the District Administrator.
It is the District Administrator who then introduces the beneficiaries to the Master of the High Court.
Advocate Christopher Lephuthing says widows remain at the mercy of their in-laws despite efforts to protect them.
“In some of the cases you find that a widow is fighting for her belongings with a girlfriend of the spouse. The girlfriend comes with claims that she also has to get a share of the estate because she has a child with the deceased,” Lephuthing says.
Advocate Koena Thabane says the courts are inundated with cases of widows fighting to keep or recover their inheritances.
She is currently working on two cases.
“Though I cannot disclose these cases because they are still in the court but I’m working on them almost every time, they are happening regularly to the extent that I cannot even remember how many they are.”
Advocate Libakiso Mantlho, national director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust, says women can only defend themselves when they understand their rights.
Matlho says the trust is lobbying the government to amend the law “in order to suit the privileges of the women.”
“We are always doing researches on the struggles faced by women out there in order to assist them; we do research based on their economic and social circumstances.”
She says they are using radio, newspapers and workshops to educate women about their rights.
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