< Women’s Human Rights
Women’s Property Rights

Fact Sheet

HIV/AIDS and Women’s Property Rights in Africa


    HIV/AIDS is ravaging Africa and is fuelled by violations of women's human rights. Abuses of women's property rights, including their rights to own, inherit, and control property, are emblematic of the human rights violations that drive women into poverty and relegate them to dependence on men. The resulting subordination and deprivation can be fatal in the context of Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Women’s HIV Infection Rates in Africa

    Women and girls account for nearly 60 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. In the worst affected countries, HIV prevalence among girls and young women aged fifteen to nineteen is four to seven times higher than among boys their age.

Property Rights Violations

    Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, women's property rights are violated on a massive scale by in-laws, relatives, communities, and government officials. The impact on women and their dependants is catastrophic: many end up homeless or living in slums, begging for food and water, unable to afford health care or school fees for their children, and at grave risk of sexual abuse or exploitation.

    Although all women are vulnerable to these abuses, divorced or separated women and widows?including AIDS widows?suffer some of the most extreme violations:

    • Divorced and separated women are often left with only the clothes on their backs as their husbands keep the home and other property.

    • Widows are often evicted from their homes as in-laws rob them of their possessions and invade their homes and lands. These unlawful appropriations happen even more readily when the husband died of AIDS.

    • In some places, widows are forced to undergo customary, sexual practices such as "wife inheritance" or ritual "cleansing" in order to keep their property. "Wife inheritance" is where a male relative of the dead husband takes over the widow as a wife, often in a polygamous family. "Cleansing" usually involves sex with a social outcast who is paid by the dead husband's family, supposedly to cleanse the woman of her dead husband's evil spirits. In both of these rituals, safer sex is seldom practiced and sex is often coerced.

The Deadly Combination of Women’s Property Rights Violations and AIDS

    The staggering number of AIDS deaths expected in Africa in the coming years will result in millions more women becoming widows at younger ages than would otherwise be the case. These women and their children (who may end up AIDS orphans) are likely to face not only social stigma against people affected by HIV/AIDS but also deprivations caused by property rights violations.

    Women with AIDS are condemned to an early death when their homes, lands, and other property are taken. They not only lose assets they could use for medical care, but also the shelter they need to endure this debilitating disease. Widows who succumb or are forced into the customary practices of "wife inheritance" or ritual "cleansing" run a clear risk of contracting and spreading HIV.

    The failure to ensure equal property rights upon separation or divorce discourages women from leaving violent marriages. HIV risk is especially high for women in situations of domestic violence, which often involve coercive sex, diminish women's ability to negotiate safer sex and condom use, and impede women from seeking health information and treatment.

Causes of Women’s Property Rights Violations

    A complex mix of factors underlies women's property rights violations in sub-Saharan African countries. Chief among them are discriminatory laws and customary practices, ineffective enforcement of laws, biased attitudes, unresponsive authorities, inept courts, women's low levels of awareness of their rights, and the social stigma of women being considered greedy or traitors to culture if they assert their rights.

International Law Protects Women’s Property Rights

    Abuses of women's property rights violate international human rights law. Treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require that countries guarantee gender equality and prohibit discrimination, including on the basis of sex. They also require that governments take steps to transform customs and traditions that are based on women's inferiority. International human rights law offers other guarantees, such as the rights to adequate housing, to sexual autonomy, and to equality in marriage. Yet governments throughout sub-Saharan Africa, most of which have ratified these treaties, hide behind custom as a defense against protecting women's property rights.

What You Can Do

    If you want to stop the violations of women's property rights and contribute to the fight against HIV/AIDS, take action now! Write or call your government officials and donor agency representatives to express your concern. For sample letters and contact information, please visit http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/women/property/action.htm.

    For information on women's property rights abuses in Kenya, see the Human Rights Watch report "Double Standards: Women’s Property Rights Violations in Kenya," available at http://hrw.org/reports/2003/kenya0303/.

Take Action Now!
Q&A: Women’s Property Rights
Fact Sheet: Women’s Property Rights Violations in Kenya
Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Women’s Property Rights in Africa
Illustrative Cases: Women Tell of the Devastation of Property Rights Abuses
Human Rights Watch Materials on Women’s Property Rights

Related Material
Organizations Working on Women’s Property Rights and Related Issues
Bibliography of Selected Publications