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Fighting for their homes

Central African Republic, September 25, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Program Manager Allison Huggins (left) stands with the widow's association near Bangui, Central African Republic. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    After her brother-in-law sold her house, Marcelline had to negotiate to live in a one-room mud brick house with her six children. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Angele (left) and her friend Marcelline are both members of the widow's association, supported by Mercy Corps. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

In the Central African Republic (CAR), women’s rights here are few, and the enforcement of the laws is almost non-existent. Most women are not even aware they have many rights. In a country where almost 70 percent of women cannot read, this is not surprising.

Widows are a group that is particularly taken advantage of and discriminated against. It is common at the death of a woman’s husband that the in-laws will take all the property that is legally due to the wife and dependents. Even more common, is that the government will refuse to pay the pension payments the widow is entitled to upon her spouse’s death.

Mercy Corps is working with the Organization of Widows and Orphans of Central Africa, a group of more than 150 widows who have joined together to defend their property rights, as well as assist widows and orphans who need financial assistance. The Association of Women Lawyers — another partner of Mercy Corps’ Women’s Empowerment Project — provides free legal counseling to the women, who otherwise would not be able to afford legal fees to defend their rights and keep their property.

I went out with the Mercy Corps Women’s Empowerment Program Manager to meet several widows in the group and learn more about their challenges. Just outside of the capital, Bangui, we met at one of the widow’s association offices. I heard the painful and traumatic stories of several widows, but I also heard inspiring news from the association about how they have begun to have a real positive impact on defending the rights of the widows.

I spent the afternoon with Marcelinne Gbenou and her neighbor Angele Tikoro — both widows and members of the association. Marcelinne’s husband died last year and was survived by her and their six children, the youngest just four years old. They had a relatively good life prior to his death: two simple homes (one in the village and one in town), enough to eat and all the kids able to attend school. By average CAR standards, they were doing well.

When Marcelinne’s husband died, her brother-in-law came, sold their houses and kept the money for himself. No one questioned the sale of the homes, because it is common for a male to handle the financial transactions in CAR.

Marcelinne was left homeless and without any skills to earn a living and support her six children. Illiterate and never having attended school, Marcelinne was not aware of her rights and unable to navigate the complex legal system to defend her property.

She managed to find a charitable landlord who agreed to rent her a one-room mud brick shack for a very minimal fee. She moved her family in with the few items they had after selling off most of her possessions to pay for rent and food. Her eldest daughter dropped out of school and took a job as a maid to help the family survive.

When she moved into the rental home her new neighbor, Angele stopped in to welcome her. Angele, also a widow who had experienced similar problems when her husband died, urged Marcelinne to join the widow’s association so the group could assist her in taking her case to court.

Angele told her about her case, when her in-laws attempted to take all her family’s property after her husband's death. She joined the widow's association, which got Angele a lawyer who agreed to handle her case for free and they took her case to court. After the first court meeting, the in-laws dropped their action and Angele has not heard from them for the past several years.

Now the widows’ association is taking up Marcelinne’s case to try to get her some of the money from the illegal sale of her homes. It is often a long and complicated process, but with the help of educated and trained lawyers Marcelinne and widows like her are starting to have a fighting chance to protect their property and provide for their children.

Mercy Corps and the widow’s association are also looking at ways to help widows help themselves. On the slate for this year are literacy and basic math classes, so widows are better equipped to manage their homes and exercise their rights.