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Know your rights, and I will respect them

By Belinda Hamburee*

9 Dec 2008: At a point when she needed it the most, Naomi Tjiueza was dispossessed of her land, home and property.

Naomi Tjiueza’s story reflects the many obstacles that Namibian women face when it comes to inheritance of property from their deceased spouses. While the country has celebrated its 18th year of independence, some people - specifically women are living in the shadows of the colonial era, which limits their ability to strive for gender equality within both their personal and social parts of life.

Naomi and her husband lived in a house together since 1993. Married under the Otjiherero customary laws, Naomi and her husband Bartlemeus spent more than a decade together until her husband passed away in December 2004.

The shock came to Naomi days after the death of her husband, when another woman showed up with the executrix letter as the legal wife of the late Bartlemeus Tjauana.

According to Naomi, she knew that her husband had six children with another woman but was unaware that the other woman was also his wife.

“I just came to learn about her at the funeral of my husband because the family of the deceased was talking about her. I felt so bad and confused because I was still mourning my husband.”

Soon after the funeral, Naomi was ordered out of the house by the other wife. The family also tried to evict her from their home at the village.

“I have been resident in the house since 1993 when we got married. My residence has been lawful ever since, as I have lived there as the customary wife of the deceased”.

Worse, prior to death Bartlemeus was unemployed and therefore had no money to pay of the house debts. In her own capacity, Naomi decided to pay off the mortgage bond of their home to the extent that the entire bond had been settled with Namibia Housing Enterprise (NHE), along with the rates and taxes, water and electricity, with the compensation money she got from the Motor Vehicle Accident funds (MVA).

Taking the matter to court, Naomi was represented by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a non-profit, public interest law firm who has continuously stood up for women and children facing inheritance issues.

“LAC Lawyer Zeka Alberto helped me win over my home at the village because I was the only one owning the livestock at our home and I am the one that build that house as well so if I have to go, I will take what’s rightfully mine,” Naomi said.

Linda Dumba-Chicalu, another Project Lawyer at the LAC stated that property grabbing, is defined as the grabbing, seizing, diverting or dispossessing the property of deceased person.

“In the past, women remained in a cycle of poverty because they inherited very little or nothing when their fathers died and were also dispossessed upon the deaths of their husbands “Dumba-Chicalu pointed out.

Dumba-Chicalu believes although property grabbing is not a new phenomenon, the problem is compounded by the scale of HIV/AIDS infection rates and deaths.

Laws that protect women from property grabbing are the Communal Land Reform Act and the Married Persons Act. According to the LAC’s Director, Norman Tjombe, inheritance laws in Namibia are confusing, unfair and unequal. Throughout its history, the LAC has provided training on will writing to communities across Namibia, published and widely distributed research on inheritance issues and called for the Government to reform its legislation on inheritance.

Reading from the Communal Land Reform Act, Dumba-Chicalu stated that: “No women shall be chased off the communal land that they occupied with their husbands after the death of their husbands,” According to this Act ‘when the person to whom the right to communal land was allocated dies; the Chief or Traditional Authority must allocate the right to; the surviving spouse or a child of the deceased if there is no surviving spouse or if the spouse does not accept the allocation of the right’.

In order to eradicate the practice of property grabbing Dumba-Chicalu believes that the Government has to embark on an aggressive campaign to educate the public about their rights. She added that some people are not even aware of the rights protecting them – including their constitutional rights. She believes that different media such as radio could play a powerful role in informing the public about their human rights.

“It is of no use to have good laws, which the people are not aware of”.

For more information on inheritance laws in Namibia or to get free legal advice about a legal issue you are currently facing, contact the Legal Assistance Centre head office at 061- 223 356 or visit our website at www.lac.org.na, you can also visit our offices in Ongwediva at 065- 230 443 or Keetmanshoop office at 063- 223187.

* Belinda Hamburee is a communications volunteer with the LAC. To learn how you can volunteer with the LAC click here.