Guardians of culture hold key to change

By Chris Hufstader

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In a gritty suburb of Maputo, Mozambique, called Jorge Dimitrov a group of 25 activists is dedicated to promoting women's rights. They gather in a café in the Bario Hulene district, a maze of narrow dirt roads, high walls, and flowering trees, to discuss their work.

But first, they sing and dance, accompanied by whistles and drums. The entire neighborhood arrives to see what is happening. They sing songs of solidarity, and the power of women to overcome poverty and illiteracy, and about a new law in Mozambique they are using to redefine their entire society, one family at a time.

The Mozambique Family Law, promulgated in 2004 is designed to bring women's rights under law in line with international standards. Thanks to this new law, women now have a chance to inherit and own financial assets such as cash and property, and have a job that earns wages—without the permission of a husband or male family member.

And the Family Law recognizes customary marriages registered with local government—an important distinction in places like Jorge Dimitrov where couples can't always afford formal marriage ceremonies. Now, women living with a husband for more than a year have the right to a share of family assets if the marriage breaks up.

However, some people in Hulene and the greater Jorge Dimitrov area are basically unaware of the new law, and live by customs and traditions that are at odds with it. The problems this creates are most obvious in cases of domestic violence and other family conflicts.

"We see a lot of problems with couples," said Hilario Muthembe, an activist in Hulene. "Maybe the husband has an illness, and says his wife is a witch and wishes him to be dead."

And when families consult local traditional leaders or healers, the matter can be resolved based on traditions and local customs that favor those with the most power: men. The activists in Hulene said this opens up the possibility of domestic violence, and an abrupt "divorce" leaving a woman and her children on the street with no means of support.

Working with local culture

Encouraging local leaders to respect women's rights under the Family Law is the mission of MULEIDE, Oxfam America's partner in Mozambique. The organization has trained more than 400 legal advisors in three provinces who work with traditional healers, the main custodians of local culture in neighborhoods like Bario Hulene.

Their mission is to make sure that women understand their new rights, and that traditional healers help protect them. "We want the illiterate grassroots women of Mozambique to know that there is a legal instrument that can help overcome decades of suffering," said Rafa Machava, executive director of MULEIDE. "So we need to engage everyone to balance their customs with the new law."

Traditional healers are the key to the strategy, as they advise local elites and families, and can be the ones to help create the long-term shift in culture that will promote respect for women's rights. Noemia Fernando, one of MULEIDE's trained legal advisors in Bario Hulene, said it is essential for her and the other activists in the community to enlist traditional healers to help women. "Traditional healers have the power to treat them, get the problem resolved, and unify the family," she said. "That is why we need them with us, they can help us do our work." Fernando and her MULEIDE colleagues explained the new law to the traditional healers in Hulene, and some healers are now helping them explain the new law to their clients, and develop non-violent solutions to conflicts.

Fatima Coelho, a traditional healer for three years, got her training on the new Family Law in 2005. And she is using her training to help ensure that women's rights are respected in her work. Coelho said it is a real challenge to help couples avoid violence. "I'm trying to teach that it is better to sit down and talk instead of beating each other—this is not the way to build up a family. This is the strongest value I gained from my training with MULEIDE in 2005, it is the best way to address these family issues."

Cecilia Reis, an elderly woman active as a healer since 1962, has been an ardent promoter of women's rights and has been working with MULEIDE since 1994. She is at the leading edge of creating a new culture of respect for women in Mozambique. Her comments show her commitment, her realistic outlook, and her aspirations. And at the root of her dedication are her own personal commitment and the training she got from MULEIDE, which is critical to her work as a spiritual advisor.

"Women and men should be equal. Women have to open their eyes and claim their rights. These issues will not change overnight—we have to fight, and get our men to [understand], because they are very difficult and don't want to change. But we still have to stand up, look them in the eye and say to them, "we have to share, because the Family Law says we have equal rights."

"There is no one who will chase me away from my house, not even my husband, he knows that I have my own rights. This is what we are trying to teach our women. But some are not open minded, and they are dependent on their husbands, sometimes they accept being beaten all the time, and sometimes they die of domestic violence, because they have nowhere to go.

"And they don't even know that there are lawyers at MULEIDE, and at the courts, who can defend them. We have lost many members of our community to domestic violence.

"But what can we do? We are a poor country, so we have to work hard. The few of us who are able to do this work, we have to stand up and work strongly."