The custom where a man can inherit his brother’s wife is backed by law in Zambia

Stephen Nartey January 19, 2023
Zambia women dancing. Image via YouTube/Kamfinsa arts Zambia

The philosophy behind the widow inheritance of the Bemba, Nsenga and Lenje tribes of Zambia is to ensure the family of the deceased man is well taken care of after his death. The deceased’s brother, therefore, assumes the role of the husband of the widow by marrying her with or without consent.

This customary practice is backed by The Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act Chapter 57 of the Laws of Zambia, according to researcher Mwenya Kambole.

Among the three tribes, women are not allowed to own property and legally they cannot lay claim to the property of their husbands. Whatever the deceased owns is transferred to the brother. The Bemba, Nsenga and Lenje tribes practice the patriarchal system that obligates a man to inherit the deceased brother’s wife by marrying her. Any woman who rejects this marriage is considered an outcast.

It is believed such a union has a spiritual cleansing attached, where the deceased’s spirit is disconnected from the wife. This custom is performed through the ritual of wife inheritance. The marriage between the deceased’s brother and the wife becomes illegal if the wife divorced the husband before his death.

The three tribes that practice this custom believe it is being done with good intentions. They say it helps to continue the family lineage. It also prevents the woman from encountering economic and social challenges. In essence, it is a continuation of the previous marriage between the woman and the husband’s family.

Human rights activists are of the view that the customs include sexual cleansing that dehumanizes a woman. The advocacy is to have the laws amended to conform to modern trends. A study of widow inheritance in Zambia and its relationship to the deceased brother’s widow’s marriage act by researcher Kambole established that like many customs, Zambia’s widow inheritance has undergone many changes in recent years.

The change in the customs was influenced by economic, social and cultural factors. The researcher found out that the Bemba, Nsenga and Lenje do not practice the custom fully now like they used to centuries ago. Whereas in the past it was mandatory, this time around, women can accept the marriage offer or decline it.

This has been due to the enactment of the intestate Succession Act Chapter 59 of the Laws of Zambia and Wills and Administration of Testate Estates Act Chapter 60 of the Laws of Zambia which provide for how much a widow inherits from her deceased husband’s estate.

Another concern that has been raised has to do with how some widows contract sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the custom. Kambole concludes his study by writing that “the way the custom is practiced is not contradictory to the inheritance acts, it flourishes in its own right. Secondly, the practice is not injurious therefore, the custom should be promoted and the act amended to suit the changes in society.”

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