Date Posted: March 15th, 2010
When Dolly Ndlovu applied for a loan, she didn’t know what she was getting herself into. The loan covered payments on a home she shared with her husband. Ms. Ndlovu works as a school principal and makes the house payments herself. So she was shocked to discover that, according to Swazi law, her husband is the sole owner of the home. Another outrage came when she separated from her husband and moved out of the house. Her husband continued to live there with another woman. But Ms. Ndlovu’s bank refused to stop deducting loan payments from her salary.
Ms. Ndlovu’s situation is not unique. Until recently, Swazi women could pay for property, but could not own it. As a result, husbands could chase their wives from their homes, leaving them with nothing. Or sell the matrimonial home without their wives’ knowledge.
A new court ruling should change all of that. The landmark ruling affects women in Swaziland married under community of property. Community of property is a legal term that applies to some Swazi marriages. Under the former law, it meant that everything the couple owned before marriage and everything they earned or bought during marriage came under the control of the husband. Thanks to the new ruling, women married under community of property now have the right to register property in their names. It further ensures that women will be equal partners in administering the property.
Representatives from the Swazi women’s movement hail the ruling as an important step towards legal reform. They say that property laws need to catch up to the country’s constitution, which was enacted in 2005. The constitution granted equal rights for women in political, economic, and social activities.
Doo Aphane is chairperson of the Swazi Gender Consortium. It was her court case that resulted in the landmark ruling. She argued that the Swazi Deeds Registry Act was unconstitutional because it discriminated against her and other married women.
The case was judged by Justice Qinisile Mabuza. She is the only woman on Swaziland’s High Court. Justice Mabuza ruled in favour of Ms. Aphane. She also ordered parliament to remove the Deeds Registry Act and other discriminatory laws from the books.
The ruling holds promise for women who want to purchase equipment or start a business. They will be able to use property registered in their name as collateral for loans. Lungile Mzizi is a project manager for the Business Women’s Forum of Swaziland. She says Swazi women will now be able to enter businesses such as construction and property development because the new law clarifies property ownership between wife and husband.
Unfortunately, the ruling does not apply to all Swazi women. It applies only to those married in a civil ceremony, under community of property. A larger number of couples live under customary law, administered by traditional chiefs.
The legal reform will not apply retroactively, either. So Ms. Ndlovu must continue to pay for the home her estranged husband shares with another woman. She says she is consoled by the fact that her child will not face the same barriers.