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 Tuesday 30 October 2007
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AFRICA: Women still back of the queue on land access

Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/IRIN/IFRC
Inheritance customs often disadvantage women
NAIROBI, 9 August 2007 (PlusNews) - The yams in the family plot were ripe when Elizabeth Igwenagu's husband died. But at the end of the one-week-long burial rite, his family harvested the entire crop of the thick, potato-like tubers, a staple starch in southern Nigeria.

"I begged them to leave some for the children, but they didn't listen," recalled Igwenagu.

In many African societies, women's rights to land and property are tenuous and dependent on males. Although legislation may guarantee equality among men and women, family matters are often managed under customary law, which evolved to retain property within the family and under male control.

With the cohesion of the extended family torn by AIDS and poverty, traditional mechanisms of social protection are vanishing.

Igwenagu's husband died in 1981. She is still fighting for widow's rights as a founding member of St. Rita's Widows Association, a support group run by the Catholic Church in eastern Nigeria's Enugu state, which provides legal advice, small loans, and moral support.

"Where is a woman's home - where you are born or where you marry? One day you wake up and you have no home," noted Florence Enyogu, from the Uganda Community-based Association for Child Welfare.

Enyogu was speaking on the impact of AIDS on women's land ownership and tenure in Africa at the first international conference on women and AIDS, held last month in Nairobi, Kenya.

Taboo to inherit

Matrilineal societies, like those from northern Angola to Zambia, Malawi, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and northern Mozambique - where land and lineage pass from mother to daughter - afford women a bit more protection.

''We have queens and female chiefs, but whether they have land rights, that is another issue''
But in patrilineal societies, where men transmit land and lineage, women's rights to property depend on their male kin. When the husband dies, his family's claims carry more weight than the widow's.

Polygamous marriages, frequent across Africa, complicate things further, with senior and junior wives, their children and several sets of in-laws competing for property.

A country's constitution and laws may guarantee a woman the right to inherit, but she faces many obstacles before she can exercise that right.

Illiterate women may be tricked by relatives or con men into signing off their land and home; women may be intimidated by court proceedings; they may only speak a local language for which the courts have no interpreters.

In some communities in northern Ghana, it is taboo for a widow to inherit her husband's property. Widows fear they and their children will die if they do, said Faty Alhasan, executive director of the Ghanaian women's group Grassroots Sisters.

"We have queens and female chiefs, but whether they have land rights, that is another issue," said Alhasan.

Get your rights

The solution the Grassroots Sisters have found is to form saving schemes where women buy land as a group. Elsewhere, communities are mobilising to protect widows and children.

The Kenya Network of Women's Groups (GROOTS) for example, organises community watchdog groups that monitor bereaved households, lobby local chiefs and administrators, and mediate in property conflicts.

A survey by GROOTS in three districts in 2006 found that more than half of orphans interviewed had lost property of their parents to relatives.

"We are struggling to convince the nation that women need secure rights to inheritance and to land," said Catherine Gatundu, deputy coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance.

In Mozambique, in 2004, the Women's Forum produced a basic manual in local languages to explain family and inheritance law to community leaders, offering solutions for different scenarios.

Strategies recommended by land activists range from very basic to the elaborate: learn to read and write; have ID cards; legalise marriages; register children; make a will; and demarcate communal land to prevent chiefs from selling it.

Conflicting legal frameworks

The continent is scoring some successes. This year Sierra Leone passed three laws to ensure women's right to land, property and inheritance. Yet democratic Ghana has stalled gender-sensitive land legislation and has no women on its Land Commission, said Alhassan.

Laws, however, are only as good as they are known, implemented and enforced. "Uganda has good laws but women face eviction because they lack information about their rights," noted Ugandan Member of Parliament, Tubwita Grace Bagaya.
''There has been no lack of international conferences and declarations on this issue ... but the reality is that women still lack access to land''

Renowned Kenyan anthropologist and women's rights activist, Dr Achola Pala, told the conference that "traditional culture is important, because it is the background to daily life. Culture is women's social capital but they should be able to deal with it in an empowered way."

"Our greatest difficulty is to link cultural practices and the legal framework, and AIDS demands urgency in this area," said Pala.

"There has been no lack of international conferences and declarations on this issue in the last 30 years but the reality is that today women still lack access to land," she concluded.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Care/Treatment - PlusNews, (IRIN) Gender - PlusNews, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), (IRIN) Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.