New laws and new-found respect for women in Mozambique

By Chris Hufstader

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In the misty mountains of Manica, Justina Nicol√£o, a 41-year-old mother of six, coordinates a tree-planting program that helps families grow fruit on the steep hillsides of her village, Mukudo, near the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border. In addition to the agricultural training she gets from local development organizations funded by Oxfam America, Justina is learning about a new Family Law that protects the rights of women to own and inherit property.

The new Family Law that took effect in 2005 addresses a common injustice: when a husband dies, tradition says his house and fields go to his brother or parents, which can leave his wife and children without a home or an income.

But passing a law in a distant capital won?t change traditional practices like this--Mozambique is a vast country of 19.5 million in 10 provinces, speaking six languages. Teaching all citizens about the new law, and building respect for it in places governed primarily by local cultures and traditions, is a serious challenge.

After funding a coalition of five organizations to get the law passed, Oxfam is now supporting a grassroots campaign to make the Family Law a reality. The coalition is using workshops, radio programs, and outreach to local leaders to get the message about the law out to all sectors of society. Last year their training sessions included 50 judges, 180 grassroots activists, and 45 radio journalists from every province.

Traditions don't change overnight, but the effort is making progress. As one local activist in Mukudo put it, "People now know that women have rights to their land. It is one of the ways new laws are changing the community," said Jonah Dzanza, a 26-year-old farmer.