By Ropafadzo Mapimhidze
SHE is a former Malawi High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and a judge in Malawi's highest court.
Despite her being instrumental for change in the customary law that made it possible for women to inherit property, she lost everything, including a house following the death of her husband in 1996.
"A colleague shouted at me saying that how could I have let that happen," said Justice Tujilane Chizumila when she addressed an African women's consultative meeting held in Lusaka, Zambia recently.
Justice Chizumila had practiced as a lawyer for nearly 20 years, representing so many women in similar circumstances, but failed to use the law when she was faced with a similar dilemma.
A colleague in the legal profession, who had actually attended her wedding, distributed all the wealth disregarding the fact that she was legally married.
This man even had the audacity of asking proof of a marriage certificate.
"This experience made me realise that this could happen to anyone regardless of status," Justice Chizumila.
This resulted in the women parliamentary caucus group making representation to make property grabbing an offence but that was thrown out through the window.
Most male parliamentarians felt if that law was passed, they would die and women would benefit from their estates.
Within three weeks she had lost all property and house which her stepson sold although she had obtained an interim order barring the sale and property distribution.
Justice Chizumila said when all these things were happening all she thought about was loss of her husband who apparently was both the minister of justice and Attorney-General in the Malawi government but had no will at the time of death.
"The question of wills also came into play and we started campaigning on changing laws making property grabbing an offence together with the women parliamentary caucus.
"I also used myself as a guinea pig and asked the ministry of gender to highlight my experiences to better other women in similar positions," said the soft-spoken Justice Chizumila.
After six weeks of research a draft law was put in place and was unanimously adopted.
The law is there but a lot of women do not know about its existence, a scenario that is quite common in most African countries.
Uganda and South Africa are good examples of African countries that have one of the best constitutions in Africa as they have a clause that stipulates gender equality.
"But that has not made the South African woman any better placed than everyone else on this continent.
"Without access to legal rights and political will to prioritise certain issues, a constitution remains a dead letter.
"Our children are still being raped, no land to the marginalised and all this is happening despite the good piece of glossy legislation," said Lebohang Liepollo Pheko, a gender activist from South Africa.
Zimbabwe too has had so many pieces of legislation that have benefited women but the justice delivery system is patriarchal and as a result, magistrates overlook existence of such laws and apply the traditional customary law in their rulings.
Zimbabwe's constitution is also silent on the issue of gender equality and this has left the woman disempowered with not much protection from the law that largely still regards women as inferior.
So how do women rate progress more than 20 years after adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more than 20 years after adoption of the Convention on the Elimination and Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)?
It has also been eight years since the Beijing Platform of Action, the African Charter on Human Rights and People's Rights was adopted.
Many African countries, despite having made commitments to these different conventions, continue having laws that explicitly discriminate against women as part and parcel of their legal frameworks.
There still exists in most Sadc countries a dual system of general laws and customary laws that have negatively affected status, rights and opportunities of many women.
Zimbabwe is signatory to most of these conventions but customary law seems to take precedence despite efforts to create awareness on the need to mainstream gender in the justice delivery system.
It is for these reasons that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) assembled representatives from a number of women's groupings to a consultative meeting in Lusaka early this month.
The meeting drew participants from over 10 African countries.
The AFSC is an independent Quaker organisation that was founded in 1917 to provide conscientious objectors with an opportunity to aid civilian victims during World War 1.
However, today it carries out programmes of service, development, social justice and peace education in 22 foreign countries and 43 places in the United States.
In Africa, AFSC has worked with peace movements in South Africa during the apartheid era and during the civil strife in both Angola and Mozambique.
The Lusaka meeting was a unique opportunity for African women leaders from various levels of social organising including policy makers, community leaders, women clergy, young women leaders, female lawyers, businesswomen and female traditional rulers to converge and engage in dialogue.
Four gender activists who included Supreme Court Judge Justice Elizabeth Gwaunza represented Zimbabwe.
According to Muriel Nqwababa AFSC Africa region co-ordinator, said the meeting was expected to come up with a clear process that would challenge the custodians of power and culture through consultation with this group of women.
The four-day meeting was aimed at engaging leading African women in a process where they would agree on a systematic strategy that would address problems facing women in the name of culture.
This dialogue would also result in development of a vision and a plan of action that would positively impact on lives of African women over the next five years.
This visionary group would build a conceptual framework that would be taken to a wide continental sub-set of women's groups doing cutting edge work in Africa.
Sentiments raised at the Lusaka meeting acknowledged the fact that the constitution was the main framework that would capture a society's democratic values and principles of justice and fundamental freedoms.
"It is clear that discriminatory laws that condone cultural practices that have negative implications on women be repealed or amended as part of any efforts to eliminate discrimination," said Ms Inonge Wina a Member of Parliament in Zambia.
She said there was no way women could improve without first setting out the principles and parameters about how this is done in the constitution.
"By rejecting women's rights we are then bound to have a constitution that is discriminatory and sexist both in orientation and character," she said.
Existing cultural structures have operated in a manner that has divided women as single and married, urban and rural, professional and non-professional.
Within these cultural divisions lies part of the explanation for women's reduced power to fight as a united front.
"There is a general acceptance that unmarried women lack that respect and that a married woman has more voice than that of a single, divorced or unmarried women.
"Women must be doing quite a lot in imparting some of those cultures into children as they spend most of the times with children," said Mrs Rose Mazula, a Zimbabwean businessperson.
The meeting agreed that communication and challenges had also limited the capacity of African women to unleash their collective power continentally to address challenges that faced them.
Women were both custodians and transmitters of culture but they had relinquished that power, passed it on to their sons in the name of culture to suppress them.
One thing for sure is that culture can be redefined or perhaps things that we think are culture and tradition are actually things that came along with colonialism.
Property grabbing is not cultural and so is domestic violence so where did it come from?
The future of Africa will largely depend on what action women take and this can only be possible if they seized this challenge. http://www.herald.co.zw/index.php?id=25385&pubdate=2003-10-07