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Zimbabwe: Widow inheritance by a member of the deceased husband's family and consequences of refusal and availability of state protection

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 22 November 2000
Citation / Document Symbol ZWE35676.E
Reference 2
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Zimbabwe: Widow inheritance by a member of the deceased husband's family and consequences of refusal and availability of state protection, 22 November 2000, ZWE35676.E, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Various reports indicate that some widows in Zimbabwe experience with problems poverty, societal and familial discrimination, and customary laws, which coercively or persuasively lead them the practice of widow inheritance (One World Organization; UNESCO n.d; Human Rights Internet 1997; IPS 3 Aug. 1998).

According to UNESCO, Harare, "elderly parents often encourage AIDS widows to marry their late husband's brother, thus putting other family members at risk" (n.d.), and a 3 August 1998 IPS report states that rural communities were being encouraged to abandon the practice because AIDS (n.d.).

A report published the by women's groups in Southern Africa states that the

"Levirate," whereby a widow continues to conceive children in the name of the dead husband through the "levir," usually the brother-in-law is still the custom in some ethnic groups in rural areas. Where it does occur, the widow finds it oppressive and undesirable, especially in the context of AIDS. It is another way for the family to obtain control over the property of the deceased. Levirate is distinguishable from widow-inheritance which also occurs, as in the latter case, the widow's future children are born in the name of the new husband. It is not always clear what type of union that widow is entering into. Both are often coercive and outcomes are problematic, even life-threatening, because of the prevalence of AIDS (One World Organization n.d).

The report further that "because of extreme poverty, lack of power and protection, the Zimbabwean widow, in particular if she is old, is an easy target for individual as well as communal acts of violence" (ibid.).

Specific information on state protection available to women forced to marry the brother of their deceased husband could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. However, allegedly in contravention of domestic and international law, in March 2000, the Zimbabwean Supreme Court reportedly reversed the gains made by women in the last 20 years when it revoked a claim made by a daughter to the estate of her dead father . The judge reportedly said that African society prescribes a lower status to women in the family and women should therefore not be considered adults (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please see the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Human Rights Internet. 1997. "Zimbabwe: Treaties and Reports to Treaty Bodies."> [Accessed 21 Nov. 2000]

Inter Press Service (IPS). 3 August 1998. Morris Nyakudya. "Health Zimbabwe: 'Wife Inheritance' Tradition Spread AIDS." (NEXIS)

One World Organization. n.d. "Empowering Widows in Development." [Accessed: 16 Nov. 2000]

UNESCO [Harare]. n.d. "Age Against AIDS." [Accessed 21 Nov. 20000]

Additional Sources Consulted

Africa Confidential [London].

Africa Contemporary Record [London].

Africa Research Bulletin [Oxford].

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1999-2000. 1998-2000. United States Department of State. Washington, DC: United States Printing Office.

IRB Databases.

Keesing's Record World Events [Cambridge]. 1988-1990.

Resource Centre. Country File. Zimbabwe.

Search engines including:




Internet sites including:

Africa News


Human Rights Watch

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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