In traditional African society, sons get to inherit property from their caregivers. Daughters on the other hand suffer the sin of omission as it is believed they will be catered for by their husbands when they are ready for marriage. This reflects the general belief around land ownership across Africa. Land rights tend to be held by men. For women of all ages to access land, they have to have a male relative; either a husband or father.
For many widows, the narrative changes as soon as they lose their husbands. A study conducted by UN Women found that in Zambia, more than one-third of widows lost access to family land when their husbands died. This is a representation of what happens across the continent. Given the cultural beliefs that surround property inheritance, widows are left destitute with no one to turn to.
Often, the families of the deceased are the perpetrators. They may want another male in the family to take over land and property. In other regions, widows are forced into ‘inheritance’ to protect the family assets. This means that the brother or any able male related to the deceased marries the widow and takes over property rights.
What factors contribute to this?
1. Low literacy levels:
Tertiary education uptake across Africa has been slow over recent years. For women especially, incentives like lowering university entry marks have been able to see many take up education. But across rural regions, girls drop out early due to poverty.
This makes them vulnerable to early marriages. Having no self-sufficiency skills, their roles are limited to child-bearing and tending to domestic work that is unpaid. Over the period, their most productive years are lost, and at the entry of the job market – only minimal jobs are available.
2. Knowledge of land inheritance and property rights is unknown.
Although most African countries are trying to embrace progressive laws on property rights, the implementation is slow.
Most women across rural regions would quickly go to local administrations to solve land disputes. Settlement is expensive and takes a lot of time. According to one of our beneficiaries, they do not believe in justice systems as men intimidate them into bribing their way to victory over land disputes.
Given that most widows living in extreme poverty now have wills, they have no rights to claim over the land.
3. Patriarchy and Cultural beliefs.
The role of women across rural Africa was previously limited to caregiving and nurturing. Although times have changed, patriarchy remains a cultural force that bars women from rightful land inheritance.
How should widows be protected against harmful rights?
Widow’s voices have to be united by a movement that impacts their lives. From a local standpoint to a magnified international level, it is upon us to ensure that we humanize widow’s rights by;
1.) Coming up with favorable policies that support widows access to land rights.
In Kenya for example, forcibly evicting a widow from her matrimonial home and land is considered illegal. More countries need to ensure widow rights are upheld and justice is easy to come by.
2) Create more awareness on laws that protect widows.
The Kenyan constitution calls for parties in a marriage to have equal rights during and even after a marriage ends.
- The Marriage Act: This act calls for registering all marriages. It immediately grants women a legal basis for land ownership claims.
- The Matrimonial Property Act: This protects women’s rights to property acquired during marriage.
- The Land Act: This provides spouses protection from having their home or land leased or sold without their knowledge.
- The Law of succession: This law gives both male and female children the same inheritance rights.
3) Educate against discriminatory social and traditional practices and beliefs.
More young girls should be empowered to attain education and gain self-sufficiency skills. This liberates them from depending on male relatives on land rights.
Further, men should be educated against the notion that sons are to be bestowed land rights and daughters should negotiate use of land through male relatives.