March 23, 2020 – Land means different things to different people. To farmers it means a source of food, a source of income and an assurance that their children will go to school, to a real estate agent, land means tenants and a livelihood. To indigenous communities land means life, continuity, a store for natural resources and abode of ancestral spirits. Land is a connection to the afterlife.
Widowed women are increasingly joining the world’s landless population. This is brought about by a patriarchal system that favors men at the expense of women. In Kenya for example, the Constitution (COK 2010) outlaws discrimination in all spheres in reality in rural setting, customary laws prevail over statutory laws. Burials are mostly in the villages and are carried out according to specific community customs which continue to place men and boys on a pedestal.
Women find it rough in relation to land both while still married and when widowed. At marriage many title deeds are in the names of husbands and at death it becomes easier for the women to lose out land to greedy in-laws. Coupled with these are archaic cultural practices which still continue to prevail dispute the high level of globalisation and technological advancement. When widowed, women find themselves navigating a rough patch, they get evicted from their matrimonial homes, some are ostracized by their in-laws in a bid to push them out of land owned by the deceased husband. For widowed women living with HIV there is still the stigma associated with HIV despite over 100 percent awareness on HIV. Rural areas are different from urban setting when one talks about HIV. In rural areas HIV is still shrouded in stigma, many people still equate HIV infection with death. Sometimes the widows are accused of being witches or a source of bad omen in a bid to make living in their matrimonial homes unbearable.
Many women upon finding their matrimonial homes inhabitable run away to urban areas with their children to eke out a living, this sinks them into deeper poverty because upon deprivation of land, some women get chased away with nothing. A woman who was used to the tranquility of village life is upon widowhood and the subsequent eviction forced into the hustle and bustle of city life trying to juggle motherhood and fatherhood to her children in the slums of Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam. The loss of land is also often orchestrated by male relatives under the guise of “a widowed woman must be inherited”, the question that needs asking is what is the economic value of wife inheritance ?. Women who refuse to be inherited are ostracized by family members both males and females. To make the situation more complicated the councils of elders in many communities comprise entirely of men who are supposed to be custodians of culture thus reinforcing the discriminative stance towards women and girls when it comes to control and access to property rights.
To curb this vicious cycle of economic, emotional and psychosocial injustice, more educational programmes need to be rolled out to create awareness on property and inheritance rights not only in cities but more in rural areas which is where property disinheritance is rife. Women should be trained on property rights and ownership long before they become widowed as part of pre-emptive defense. Additionally, joint titling should be promoted at all levels. Men and boys also need deliberate educational programmes on property rights and values so that they no longer see female property ownership from a competitive lens. Councils of elders also need re-education, learning and unlearning to look at women property rights differently. The culture of pro-bono lawyering also needs to be cultivated. There is an urgent need for a cadre of women friendly pro-bono lawyers in every rural community to take up property rights related cases. Additionally, there is need for training women and girls on para-legalism that way they will have the knowledge and confidence on how to handle property rights disruptions when the need arises. Women also need to form sisterhood networks to provide support to each other because property loss is an emotional feeling as much as it is an economic issue.