The widow inheritance of Zambia’s Bemba, Nsenga, and Lenje tribes is intended to ensure that the deceased man’s family is well cared for after his death. As a result, the deceased’s brother assumes the role of the widow’s husband by marrying her with or without her consent.
According to researcher Mwenya Kambole, this customary practice is supported by The Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act Chapter 57 of the Laws of Zambia.
Women are not allowed to own property in any of the three tribes, and they cannot legally claim their husbands’ property. Everything the deceased owned is passed down to the brother. The patriarchal system is practiced by the Bemba, Nsenga, and Lenje tribes, which requires a man to marry the deceased brother’s wife in order to inherit her. Any woman who refuses this marriage is regarded as an outcast.
It is believed that such a union involves a spiritual cleansing in which the deceased’s spirit is severed from the wife. This tradition is carried out through the ritual of wife inheritance. If the wife divorced the husband before his death, the marriage between the deceased’s brother and the wife becomes illegal.
The three tribes who practice this custom believe it is done in good faith. They claim it helps to preserve the family lineage. It also protects the woman from economic and social difficulties. In essence, it is a continuation of the woman’s previous marriage with the husband’s family.
Human rights activists believe the customs include sexual cleansing, which dehumanizes women. The goal of the advocacy is to have the laws changed to reflect current trends. A study of widow inheritance in Zambia and its relationship to the deceased brother’s widow’s marriage act conducted by researcher Kambole discovered that, like many customs, Zambia’s widow inheritance has changed dramatically in recent years.
Economic, social, and cultural factors all played a role in the shift in customs. The researcher discovered that the Bemba, Nsenga, and Lenje no longer fully practice the custom as they did centuries ago. Unlike in the past, women now have the option to accept or decline marriage proposals.
This is because the intestate Succession Act, Chapter 59 of the Laws of Zambia, and the Wills and Administration of Testate Estates Act, Chapter 60 of the Laws of Zambia, which govern how much a widow inherits from her deceased husband’s estate, were enacted.
Another issue that has been raised is how some widows become infected with 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. Second, because the practice is not harmful, it should be promoted and the law amended to reflect societal changes.”