Womens’ rights: Changing laws, changing minds

In Mozambique, Oxfam and its partners are strengthening laws that protect the basic rights of women.

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Cristina Rafael has an amazing story about her neighbor—let’s call her Angela—who came to her with a terrible problem. Several problems, actually. So many it was hard to know where to start.

Angela was recently widowed. Her husband’s family, and her son, had excluded her from all the burial and memorial services for her late husband. The son then kicked Angela out of the house. She spent most of her time in her maize field, sneaking in and out of the house when he wasn’t looking. He gave her no food and would not allow anyone to visit her.

Her son did this to Angela even though she had taken him in after his own mother passed away. Her late husband appeared one day at their home (near Maputo, Mozambique’s capital) with a 6-month-old boy, his son with a deceased girlfriend. Angela raised him as her own. He grew up and became a police officer. Yet when his father died, this is how he treated her.

Cristina Rafael says Angela was depressed by this situation. Who wouldn’t be? She tried to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a moving car, but did not suffer any serious physical injuries. Rafael moved Angela into her home to keep her safe and gave her a few suggestions. Rafael explained that under Mozambique’s 2004 Family Law, a widow is due 50 percent of the couple’s assets upon the death of her husband, with 50 percent going to the children.

Rafael and Angela then sought advice from a local nongovernmental organization called Cá-Paz, an ally of Oxfam that offers legal aid. They trained Rafael to be a resource for her neighbors who need advice. With legal guidance from Cá-Paz, Rafael helped Angela bring a complaint to the local court, called a tribunal.

The ungrateful son soon found out about the case and boasted to his stepmother that he would use his influence at the court to ensure she never got a hearing. And indeed the tribunal had not set a date for one. So the attorney at Cá-Paz wrote the tribunal a strongly worded letter. The result? The court held a hearing and ordered a division of the assets.

Rafael says Angela now “feels better, looks better, and is more active in defending her rights in this case. I’m glad she’s not in any danger now.”

It’s not exactly a happy ending—she still has to figure out a way to share the house and get along with the ungrateful son. But it’s not a bad outcome.


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Building respect for law and women

When Angela cited Mozambique’s Family Law in court, it helped her get some respect for her basic rights in ways widows like her usually didn’t before the Family Law was ratified by Parliament and signed by the president. The Family Law, when combined with a close reading of Mozambique’s constitution, a 1997 Land Law, and the 2009 Domestic Violence Law, strengthens a legal claim of basic rights for women.

Oxfam helped a coalition of women’s organizations in Mozambique advocate for the Family Law to prevent the common practice of casting widows and children out into the street when a husband/father dies. Women who are poorly educated or illiterate, without secure title to land and home, without the respect of their family, religious and government leaders, and others in society, are more vulnerable to poverty. Widows thrown out of their homes become destitute. They may not be able to secure a decent livelihood, which can force them into transactional sexual situations that make them more vulnerable to HIV infection and AIDS.

The idea to write a new Family Law in Mozambique actually came from the president’s cabinet, according to Graҫa Julio, the program coordinator at Forum Mulher, an association of women’s organizations in Maputo. Oxfam helped the larger coalition of women’s groups—including Forum Mulher, the Mozambique Women’s Lawyer’s Association, and others—to advocate for key elements of the law that would protect the basic rights of women and children.

Julio says Oxfam’s grants “included training on how to work with Parliament, because they are the decision makers, they make the laws …. We learned how to engage with members of Parliament, and we got the tools to do this.” Their tactics included meeting with key government commissions and representatives of the political parties, and holding workshops to teach them about gender issues and problems in society that put women’s rights at risk.

“We discussed with MPs why we wanted to make changes in laws, particularly as it related to informal marriages, adultery, and why current laws discriminated against women, as well as why domestic violence should be grounds for divorce,” Julio says “We trained them to analyze the proposed Family Law, and see how it can reduce risks for women.”

Progressive laws, respecting rights

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Changing attitudes and behaviors is a process .... That’s why we’re investing in programs in schools, working with youth—both boys and girls. We believe working with them at an early age will help them develop different opinions, a different frame of mind.

Graca Julio
Program coordinator at Forum Mulher, an association of women’s organizations in Maputo

The struggle continues

As Cristina Rafael and her neighbor Angela learned, laws on the books do not automatically translate to rights on the ground. After getting Parliament to pass the Family Law and convincing the president to sign it, the struggle then turned to enforcement.

“We have approved a lot of laws. They look good, but the government does not spend a cent to help their representatives enforce them,” says Maria Jose Arthur, an anthropologist who works for Women in Law in Southern Africa, an Oxfam partner.

Since the Family Law’s passage, Oxfam has been working with local organizations to spread the word about it.

“Oxfam helped us train activists and disseminate the law using simplified leaflets translated into local languages,” says Graça Julio. She says her organization targeted village chiefs, traditional healers, and other religious leaders to build awareness of the new law.

Women’s rights advocates in Mozambique encounter a lot of resistance to laws that are designed to reduce violence against women and produce changes in inheritance laws. And it’s not just in local communities, but also police stations, courts, and even hospitals treating violence survivors. Many will say that what goes on in homes, between husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, is not an area in which the authorities should intervene. This attitude institutionalizes gender inequality, so it’s especially important to challenge it. But it’s not easy.

“If you go to a training for police and think they are going to uphold the [Family] Law, it’s a big mistake. They don’t agree with it,” says Arthur. “In Africa in general, when you discuss women’s rights and children’s rights, people use the argument about culture and tradition to stop changes.”

“In all our work on human rights, women’s rights, and cultural issues, we see these arguments at many levels, in universities and parliament, for example. It can be very powerful. Each time we get to a certain point in our work, we get the same speech.”

People do not so much defend the right of a husband to beat a wife, or a family to steal a widow’s inheritance, as much as they feel that, as Arthur explains, “each new law is an act of aggression against the way they were raised in their family. They say they are against it.”

“Sometimes,” Arthur says, “we have to challenge the idea that culture defines us.”

Graҫa Julio knows that changing attitudes and behaviors requires a long-term commitment.

“Changing attitudes and behaviors is a process,” she says. “People grow up, they get educated in certain ways, and we can’t change them quickly. That’s why we’re investing in programs in schools, working with youth—both boys and girls. We believe working with them at an early age will help them develop different opinions, a different frame of mind.”

The law says gender-based violence is a crime, but the police release perpetrators and then their victims come here to complain. We help them take these cases to court.

Dulce Narciso
Coordinator for the domestic violence prevention program at AMUDEIA (Association of Vulnerable Women in Manhiça)

Ending violence

The pace of change may feel slow to people dealing with violence and discrimination against women on a daily basis. One of them is Dulce Narciso, who was trained by Oxfam to become a paralegal advisor for women. She works for an organization called AMUDEIA, a Portuguese acronym for the Association of Vulnerable Women in Manhiça, a few hours north of Maputo.

Narciso’s office is in a sprawling concrete and brick building on the main road. In one room, five toddlers play and sing songs with a teacher. Apart from that, it’s a quiet day at work as Narciso meets with a few visitors and volunteers in a conference room decorated with posters about women’s rights to own land, to live free from violence, and instructions about how to report violent crimes.

This is a major sugar producing area—there are numerous plantations and processing plants. And Narciso says there’s a high demand for services in Manhiça. “There are two large sugar companies here, and a lot of workers are not originally from here,” Narciso explains. “So when they come here they get girlfriends and have no intention of marrying them. And when they get them pregnant, they have no intention to support them.”

‘I’m leading a better life than before’

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The 2004 Family Law provides some protection for these abandoned girlfriends, Narciso says. “In the past if a man gets a woman pregnant, [the father] can just abandon her. Now, even if the man is already married, he has to assist the pregnant woman for nine months and then provide assistance for the child until age 21,” she says.

Narciso has some experience explaining this aspect of the Family Law, and the need to share responsibility, to these fathers. “If the men are married, stubborn, and don’t want to comply, we refer these cases to the courts.”

Narciso says AMUDEIA also has a steady stream of domestic violence survivors seeking help and advice. Having the Family Law and a Domestic Violence Law helps women, but not as much as you might think, according to Narciso.

“The law says gender-based violence is a crime,” she says, “but the police release perpetrators and then their victims come here [to AMUDEIA] to complain. We help them take these cases to court.”

And sometimes they get relief, like the woman who recently came to AMUDEIA to report multiple beatings by her husband and the complete indifference of police officers, who considered it a private matter and sent her home—to more brutality.

Narciso notes that AMUDEIA reports such incidents to the attorney general’s office, and in this particular case the attorney general himself investigated and brought a disciplinary charge against the police officer, a woman so invested in the culture of the police that she failed to enforce the law to protect another woman.

“When laws are enforced, we see progress,” says Narciso. “When we can raise awareness about the Domestic Violence Law, it’s positive. But the work is slow and difficult.”

“Domestic violence won’t stop overnight.”

Read more stories on Oxfam’s work to defend the rights of women and girls.

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Additional credits: Lead image shot by Brett Eloff. Cecilia Reis is one of more than 250 traditional healers in Mozambique trained by Oxfam’s partner MULEIDE to teach people about Mozambique’s Family Law. Traditional leaders are trusted in the community, so people go to them for advice. “Women and men should be equal,” Reis tells people. “Women have to open their eyes and claim their rights …. We have to fight and get our men to understand, because they can be difficult and resist 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.’”

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