Africa’s Homeless Widows
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: June 16, 2004
Africa’s Homeless Widows
Women feed Africa. They grow 80 percent of
the continent’s food, yet the land they cultivate is not theirs.
Women own only 1 percent of the land in sub-Saharan Africa.
Tradition says that when a man dies, his property passes to
his adult sons or brothers. The widow and her children are
often evicted and left destitute.
These inheritance customs have long taken land away from those
who cultivated it and helped to impoverish the most vulnerable
women and children. But AIDS now magnifies the harm. Since
men are dying younger, they often leave no sons old enough
to inherit their property and thus save the family from homelessness — so
more widows are evicted.
In some countries, discrimination is in the law. In Swaziland,
for example, women are lifelong legal minors and cannot own
property. Many countries place barriers to women’s inheritance
of property. But even in places like Ghana and Zambia, where
the formal law protects women to some degree, the dispossession
of widows is widespread. Changing laws, then, is only one step
in fighting the practice.
Traditionally, women lack rights but are supposed to be protected
by their fathers, and then by their husbands. And brothers
who inherit a dead man’s property are supposed to assume responsibility
for his widow and orphans. But increased desperation, fueled
largely by AIDS, has made a great number of families disregard
this obligation. Instead, brothers often violently evict the
widow. Sometimes a widow returns from a mourning ceremony to
find someone else’s lock on her door.
Reforming inheritance practices has been a focus of the women’s
rights movement in Africa since it began about 20 years ago.
Campaigners have been able to change some legal codes, but
such changes have brought little help. Laws often specifically
exempt family matters or do not apply to marriages outside
the formal legal system, which is most of them. National laws
are rarely known, let alone enforced, in rural Africa. A desperate
widow is unlikely to challenge her husband’s relatives, who
may remain her only hope for handouts.
Helping widows requires more than rewriting legal codes. Educational
programs are necessary to encourage men to question the commonly
held belief that if women are allowed to inherit property,
wives will be enticed to kill their husbands. Women’s groups
have had some success working with tribal chiefs and training
mediators; they have founded groups of village women who counsel
new widows on ways to protect their homes and guard their belongings
while mourning. Governments have left the task of village-level
education to women’s organizations, but these lack resources.
It should be a government’s job not only to improve its laws,
but also to ensure that they are upheld.