Marriage laws: a total overhaul needed

Last year the Ministry of Justice announced it was making moves to harmonise the long-criticised marriage laws. This would see every Zimbabwean marriage being recognised under one act and the same rights and limitations being applied to all marriages.

The current law recognises threekinds of unions: civil marriage, registered customary marriage and unregistered customary unions – a source of much confusion and heartache.

In its move to review these laws the ministry stated that research was being conducted in selected districts to determine the type of marriages most prevalent and identify the challenges faced in registering marriages. While the results of this research are yet to berevealed, unregistered customary unions will certainly top the list as state-registered marriage officers are not always available in remote areas where most people live.

Judging from the number of legal disputes over property rights, inheritanceand estates of deceased persons,manypeople do not understand their legal rights. According to the Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender index, more than 80 percent of rural households are unregistered customary marriages.

Recently the RG’s office halted civil marriages countrywide to make way for a new system of registering marriages and introduced a marriage certificate with special security features. Many lauded the move, saying it would protect citizens planning to marry foreign nationals and women who have often fallen prey to con artists. The new procedure requires those intending to marry to submit their full names and identity particulars plus passport size photographs and thumb finger prints on the day of the wedding. Foreign nationals need to produce a police clearance document absolving them of any past criminal activity.

In the last decade an influx of foreigners marrying locals for the convenience of gaining citizenship and easy access to local business opportunities has made ordinary citizens and leaders wary of the laxity of marriage laws. This has seen many being taken advantage of or even losing their property when their spouses for example choose to move to another country. Zimbabwe’s rigid citizenship laws also have the potential to negatively affectthose, especially women, in trans-national unions as battles of who gains custody of the children in cases of divorce or relocation may arise.

The changes show just how discriminatory the marriage laws are: the civil union has once again been fortified while the registered and unregistered customary unions remain open toabuse. A formalised marriage does not only offer psychological protection, but alsoprotection of property. It also helps protect the rights of the surviving spouse in the case of death.

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