Wife "charged" 15 cows by traditional court after husband commits suicide

A woman whose husband committed suicide after he assaulted her and she laid a complaint with the police, has been “charged” by a traditional court in Namibia for causing her husband’s death. The woman, Kathova Shiputa, was told she should not have gone to their joint home where she had found her husband in bed with another woman, and that she should not have complained to the police after her husband threatened her with a knife. “Convicted” and sentenced to pay 15 cows or N$30 000 as punishment, she was told that if she did not pay by the end of May 2019, the “village police” would come to collect the cattle. This is far from the only example of traditional courts in Namibia acting beyond their powers. In this particular case, Shiputa has asked the high court to intervene and set aside the proceedings as well as the decision of the headmen and their “court”.

Kathova Shiputa can’t afford to lose 15 cows. Her husband, Mukwangu Haingura Mikwangu recently committed suicide and now she is the sole parent of their four-year-old child and a second child due in October. But she has been “sentenced” by a Namibian traditional court to hand over those precious cattle as punishment for the “crime” of causing her husband to kill himself.

Towards the end of 2018, the couple went back to her maternal village of Shikenge to help her elderly mother prepare the fields for cultivation. After her husband returned to the couple’s own home in Shankara village, Shiputa stayed on longer to help her mother further. When she returned home, however, she found her husband in bed with another woman.

She says in an affidavit that her husband and the other woman did not notice her and she “did not disturb them”. Family members whom she later asked to go with her to collect her personal belongings refused to do so because of her husband’s “violent nature”. Soon afterwards she met him and he “viciously assaulted” her. Next morning, she tried to find someone from the Gciriku Traditional Authority to help her get her things but without success, so she collected her belongings on her own and then made her way to her mother’s house in the other village.

A day later her husband came to her mother’s house. Challenged by her mother, he admitted having an affair with the other woman. He returned that night with an okapi knife and threatened to kill Shiputa. She tried to get the police to help but they said they had no transport and advised that she open a case against him in the morning.

This she did, but heard nothing further until two days later when she learnt that her husband had committed suicide, hanging himself from a tree near the house.

Relatives of her husband then accused her of “causing” him to commit suicide and demanded that she pay for the funeral. Her family thus contributed two cows, two goats and other food for the event, as well as N$3200 for the coffin.

Following the burial, these relatives took her to a nearby village where the headman informed her that she was guilty.

“The basis of finding me guilty was that I should not have returned to our home where I found (him) with another woman, and should not have reported to the Namibian Police that (he) attempted to injure or kill me with a knife.”

The headman then referred the case to the chief of the Gciriku Traditional Authority for sentencing. Again, she told her story and said she could not be held responsible for her husband’s suicide, but again she was found guilty. By way of sentence, she had to pay either 15 cows or N$30 000 to the Gciriku Traditional Authority by the end of May 2019 or the “village police” would go to collect the cattle from her.

She was forced to sign a document, though she did not read it and did not know what it said.

Shiputa has now taken the matter to the high court, asking that the proceedings be declared irregular and invalid as the traditional authority did not have the power to act as it did.

She says she was not given an opportunity to challenge the version of her accusers. They did not testify in her presence so she was not able to question them – something in clear violation of her constitutional rights.

The reasons she was found guilty, namely that she should not have returned home to find her husband committing adultery and that she should not have reported him to the police for assault, something that allegedly caused his suicide, “are so far-fetched and unbelievable that no reasonable court or tribunal would ever have convicted a person of the same”, she says.

Moreover, the fine was so shockingly disproportionate that she believed it was simply an illegal fund-raiser for members of the committee that convicted her, particularly in view of the fact that the fine was to be paid to the headman and not to the family of her deceased husband.

Shiputa pointed out that the same tribunal authority had imposed an identical fine on a man who murdered two people (his pregnant wife and his child). It defied explanation that she should be punished in the same way.

The Gciriku tribal authority has not yet responded to the allegations now filed in court as the basis for her legal action. However, it is not the first time that a tribal council has been taken to court for allegedly over-stepping the bounds of their authority.

According to local media, in 2012 a woman sued the local traditional authority for N$500 000 for effectively reducing her to slavery. The woman was held at the local king’s residence for many months and released only after her daughter went to court for an order that she be released. She was “enslaved” after claims that she had killed someone from her village with whom she had shared a traditional beer two days previously.

That same year another traditional court imposed a hefty fine on someone who was not a member of that community and did not even speak the local language. The authority also tried to take away the lodge that he had been operating on the Okavango river for more than 20 years and “fined” him N$60 000. The high court however found the man did not fall under the jurisdiction of the traditional authority, ordered the fine repaid with interest and strongly censured the key figures in the “trial” for the way the man had been treated. 

 

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