Balancing culture, new law in Mozambique

By Chris Hufstader

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When the president of Mozambique signed the new Family Law in March 2005, it was a moment for celebration—the status of women was legally redefined, and marriage laws were overhauled.

But then the Family Law coalition, five groups funded by Oxfam America that helped create and promote the new law, turned to the next phase of their mission: To ensure the new law is understood by a diverse population in a vast country of 19.5 million in 10 provinces, speaking six languages (with 16 dialects).

The new Family Law contains a number of revolutionary concepts for a country like Mozambique, which is struggling to emerge from poverty, conflict, colonization, and illiteracy.

Features of the law

A complete overhaul of marriage laws: The new law recognizes customary or non-formal traditional marriages, and allows widows to inherit land and other property. It also raises the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18, which will help encourage the next generation of females to gain secondary education. Women now have the right to seek divorce in the case of domestic violence or infidelity, and to create and enforce prenuptial agreements.

Redefining the status of women in society: Putting women on an even footing with men is essential for fighting poverty, in any country. "The old law increased poverty for women," said Maria Orlanda, secretary general of the Mozambique Women Lawyers' Association in Maputo. "They depended on husbands for assets and there was no way for them to accumulate wealth of any kind." Under the new Family Law, men are no longer the de facto head of a household. This authority is now shared with women, who also have the right to work outside the home without the permission of a husband or male relative, and to buy, own, and manage property or other financial assets.

Balancing law and culture

"You have to understand the problems of grassroots people to really help them," says Rafa Machava, executive direct or Muleide, a women's rights and development organization that is part of the Family Law coalition in Mozambique. With funding from Oxfam America, Muleide is reaching out to people—particularly traditional leaders—in small communities, training them and promoting the new law in ways that do not create conflict with their concepts of family life, and the role of women in society.

Muleide targets traditional leaders as the key for real change in communities. "They are the voice that is trusted," Machava says, "and they open doors for you, as respected people in the community."

Using tradition to prevent violence

One of Muleide's central missions is to provide assistance to women who are in danger of domestic violence. "Many perpetrators of violence claim that there is a traditional basis for the conflict in their household, based on their beliefs," Machava said. "A man may say his wife is a witch, or has been cursed by ancestors, because she can't have children. Or the wife may say that the husband did not pay enough lobola, a dowry or bride price, and this makes her unable to have children. And if for any reason a child dies, you can have these sorts of conflicts. A wife can be sent back to her family, and they will consult a traditional healer for a solution."

Muleide's activists work with the traditional healers. "Our activists ask the healer to tell the couple about the new Family Law," Machava said. "We teach them in their local language, because they don't speak Portuguese, so that there will be no conflict between the advice from a traditional healer and the law. This is a way of showing that domestic problems can be resolved without violence, and people can learn that they can seek legal help from Muleide and other organizations." The organization trained 250 traditional healers in Maputo province in 2005.

Working with a traditional healer trained in the new Family Law helps people resolve problems based on traditions with which they are comfortable, while at the same time learning to respect the new law and avoid solutions that violate women's rights. This added expertise in the new law is of great interest to traditional healers, says Machava. "They openly say they work with Muleide because it brings them more customers," she said.