Defending women's rights in Mozambique


By Ann Wigglesworth

Josefina was married with three children, and a fourth was on its way. Josefina was from a different tribal group from that of her husband, and his family did not approve of the marriage. Belonging to a highly polygamous society, her husband had married a second time, to a woman from his own community, and this wife was favoured by his family.

When her husband was killed in a motor accident, Josefina was thrown out of home by her husband's family. They did not permit her even to take the beds and clothes for the children. Josefina's own family lived in a distant village in the north of the province, so they could not help her.

Still, Josefina was lucky because, although barely literate, she was able to find work. Eventually, she was able to build her own house and provide some security for her children. Most women are not so fortunate.

Abandonment and complete material dispossession of women by their husbands is one of the greatest problems faced by women in Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique.

The laws in Mozambique declare that women and men have equal rights. The family law states that in the case of breakdown of a marriage or a de facto relationship with children, the man is obliged to support his children. If he is earning a salary, local courts can arrange for his employer to divide his salary between himself and his wife (or wives).

Most men do not earn a salary, but derive a cash income from fishing, informal trading or craftsmanship of some kind. In these cases it is more difficult for the courts to define or enforce payment of maintenance.

Only a few cases of abandonment ever get to court. Firstly, most women do not know they have the right to demand support from their husbands for the children. Secondly, even if they do know, they are afraid of reprisals by the male leadership in the community.

If they do succeed in reaching the court, the husband all too often will make a private arrangement with the local judge to achieve a verdict favourable to himself.

It is against this background of injustice that the International Women's Development Agency (IWDA) has recently started a legal rights project working with the Organisation of Mozambican Women ince.

The project will inform women from rural and urban communities in Cabo Delgado of their rights under Mozambican Law, assess whether women are obtaining their rights, and assist them in defending those rights.

IWDA will fund a counsellor and assistant to carry out the campaign in three districts of the province. The project coordinator and legal counsellor, Maicha Pitara, has been active in the local women's movement since the liberation struggle prior to 1975 and is now the elected representative for women serving in the jury of the provincial court.

In order to provide solidarity with women seeking legal rights, the project will encourage the formation of village-level women's support groups. The project will provide small seeding funds for economic projects initiated by these groups.

Women whose cases have failed in the local courts have the option of appealing to a higher level. Until now, a lack of funds and community support have often prevented women from taking this step. It is hoped that this project will help solve some of these problems.

Another important part of the project is to bring complaints to the provincial court against those local judges whose rulings do not conform to the law. This court has the power to replace local and district judges if many complaints are made against them.

The project is very much at a pilot stage. Following an evaluation of the first year, IWDA and OMM hope to expand the program over the next few years.
[Ann Wigglesworth is the overseas program manager with the International Women's Development Agency. From 1986 to 1990 she worked in Africa coordinating Oxfam's major development program in Mozambique.]

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