Women’s Human Rights
Women’s Property Rights

Illustrative Cases: Kenyan Women Tell of Property Rights Abuses

NOTE: The following accounts are drawn from the Human Rights Watch report “Double Standards: Women’s Property Rights Violations in Kenya.” Pseudonyms are used for all women referred to below to protect their privacy.

Voices of Widows

Voices of Divorced and Separated Women

Voices of Widows

E. Owino

    E. Owino, a fifty-four-year-old widow from western Kenya, said that shortly after her husband died, her in-laws grabbed her farm equipment, livestock, household goods, and clothing. The in-laws insisted that she be “cleansed” by having sex with a social outcast, a custom in that region, as a condition of staying in her home. They paid a herdsman to have sex with Owino, against her will and without a condom. Her in-laws later took over her farmland. She sought help from the local elder and chief, who did nothing. Her in-laws forced her out of her home, and she and her children became homeless. No longer able to afford school fees, her children dropped out of school.

M. Wamuyo

    M. Wamuyo, a forty-year-old widow, said her in-laws evicted her when her husband died in 1996. She and her husband had lived in a spacious house on land where she grew vegetables. Soon after Wamuyo’s husband died, her in-laws pressured her to leave. “My father-in-law would kick my door at night and tell me I should leave because it was his land. He said if I wanted land, I should go to my mother and ask for land.” When Wamuyo protested, her father-in-law demanded that she be his second wife. “I told him I had never heard of such a thing in our tradition,” she said. “I went to the elders because I wanted to continue living there.... The elders said I had to move out.” Wamuyo moved to Nairobi’s Kangemi slum. She now struggles to make ends meet: “Sometimes I’m unable to buy food for my children. They haven’t been in school since 1997.... I told my daughters to look for housework.”

T. Murunga

    “I was thrown out of my home when my husband died because I had only given birth to girls,” said T. Murunga, a widow from rural Kenya. Until her husband’s death in 1994, Murunga lived in a hut on her husband’s homestead, where she grew potatoes and maize. She recalled:

    When my husband died, his relatives came and took everything. They told me to take my clothes in a paper bag and leave. I left, because if I had resisted they would have beat me up. The relatives identified someone to inherit me. It was a cousin of my husband. They told me, ‘Now you are of less value, so we’ll give you to anyone available to inherit you.’ I didn’t say anything. I just left and went to my parents’ home.... This is customary. If I had married the cousin, I could have lived where I was. I decided not to because he was polygamous¾he had five other wives.... I know if a woman is inherited, she is normally mistreated by the one who inherits her.

    If I had sons instead of daughters, they would have apportioned land to me.... When they told me to leave, they said there was no way they could recognize my daughters since they’ll marry and leave the homestead. They said I shouldn’t have given birth at all.... My in-laws took everything¾mattresses, blankets, utensils. They chased me away like a dog. I was voiceless.

    Murunga’s in-laws expected her to undergo a traditional ritual involving sexual intercourse with her dead husband’s body, but she avoided this because her brothers were there with machetes to protect her. Her in-laws were angry, and they and other villagers harassed her. One night, a group of five men came to her hut shouting threats. She believes that the village elder sent them to punish her for rejecting tribal traditions.

    Frightened, Murunga left her home and went to her parents, where she stayed for four years without getting land to cultivate. “I felt like a foreigner in that homestead,” she remarked. In 2001, Murunga was having so much trouble paying her children’s school fees that she went back to her in-laws to ask permission to cultivate her late husband’s land. “My brother-in-law sent me away. He said I am no longer his relative and he doesn’t know who I am.” Murunga now lives in Nairobi in a dilapidated one-room shack without electricity. “Even feeding my children is hard now,” she said. She did not seek help from authorities. “Whom could I tell?” she asked. “I felt that if I went to the elders, they wouldn’t attend to me because I only have daughters.”

A. Nyakumabor

    A. Nyakumabor, whose husband died of AIDS in 1998 and left her HIV-positive with five children, went from being relatively affluent to destitute after her husband’s family took her property. Her in-laws grabbed household items from her Nairobi home and took over her house and land on the island of Rusinga even though Nyakumabor helped pay to construct the house. Soon after her husband’s death, Nyakumabor’s father-in-law called a family meeting, told her to choose an inheritor, and ordered her to be cleansed by having sex with a fisherman. Nyakumabor refused, causing an uproar. She felt ostracized and quickly returned to Nairobi. A brother-in-law took over her land and livestock on Rusinga without compensating Nyakumabor. She now struggles to meet her family’s needs, and her landlord in Nairobi’s Kibera slum has threatened to evict her because she cannot always pay rent on time.

L. Kamene

    L. Kamene, a thirty-three-year-old widow, lived and farmed on land in eastern Kenya with her husband until he died in 1997. After he died, Kamene’s brother-in-law told her and her children to leave, claiming that she was never married and he now owned the land. “He claimed that I wasn’t married to my husband because not all of the customary steps were completed.” Kamene considered herself married, as did her other in-laws, even though a few customary rituals were not done. “Even the clan knew we were married,” she said. “The first time anyone said we were not married was a week after the burial.”

    Kamene’s brother-in-law demanded the land title deed and her late husband’s identification card. “He threatened me,” she said. “He told me, ‘I’ll burn you with fire if you don’t put the title and I.D. card on the table right now.’ He told me if I dared talk back to him he’d beat me.” Terrified, she gave him the documents. “I feared that my brother-in-law might attack me. I was afraid for the children.” Soon after that, Kamene moved to Nairobi, taking only clothing for herself and her children and leaving behind livestock and other property. “My brother-in-law took everything,” she said. “He did all this to evict me.... This man was jealous of me because he didn’t have boys. He thought my son would claim the land.” Kamene’s brother-in-law and his wife now live in Kamene’s house.

    Although Kamene informed the local chief of these threats, he did nothing. She did not report this to the police, who were far away. To this day, she wishes she could live on her land but fears going back. She now lives with her children and those of her sister (who died of AIDS) in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum. They live in a metal shack with no running water or electricity.

I. Orimba

    I. Orimba, a twenty-five-year-old widow with AIDS, lost her home, land, and other property when her husband died in 2002. She told her in-laws that she had AIDS and wanted to stay in the house. They snatched her property anyway and wanted her to be inherited as a wife by an in-law. She recalled:

    I told my in-laws I’m sick... but they took everything. I had to start over.... They took sofa sets, household materials, cows, a goat, and land. I said, “Why are you taking these things when you know my condition?” They said, “You’ll go look for another husband.” My in-laws do not believe in AIDS. They said that witchcraft killed my husband.

Voices of Divorced and Separated Women

T. Kamuye

    T. Kamuye, a thirty-five-year-old Maasai woman, was abused by her husband for years before they divorced in 1999. “My husband cut me on the head,” she said. “He was going to kill me.... He told me, ‘I’ll cut your neck,’ and tortured me.” Kamuye and her three children fled to her parents’ home, and her father returned the dowry to her husband. At the time, her husband owned at least two hundred sheep and cattle, but she got none of them. She explained:

    When I left my husband’s home, I didn’t try to take property.... In Maasai custom, women are not supposed to go back for property. A woman has to look for new livestock.... If a woman buys property during the marriage or brings it to the marriage, she would leave that with the husband upon divorce.... When I married, my parents-in-law gave me twenty sheep and twenty cattle. These were not really mine, even though they were given to me. I had to leave them.

M. Atieno

    M. Atieno, a Luhya woman living in Nairobi, separated from her husband in 1998 after his beatings and rapes became life threatening. She had briefly left her husband and reported the violence to police in 1996, but they took no action. Having nowhere else to stay, Atieno went back to her husband:

    The police said this was a domestic issue. I went to my parents, but my father said that as an African woman, I should stay with my husband. I received no help from anyone, so I went back to my husband.... It made it worse that my husband knew no one would help me. I was at his mercy.... I had no money to look for a place of my own. If I had money, I would have moved out.

    When Atieno left the marriage for good, she did not take property. “I didn’t try to get the property because I was trying to save my life. I don’t even want to dream about getting the property. I want nothing to do with my husband. I won’t bother.” The family property at the time consisted of a commercial plot, money in a bank, a pension fund, household goods, and furniture. Atieno purchased most of the household goods and furniture. The house she shared with her husband had a tile roof, brick walls, cement floor, electricity, and running water. She and her children now live in Nairobi’s Kibera slum in a one-room mud and iron shelter, where they initially slept on cardboard boxes. Her slum shelter has no electricity, water, or sanitation, and there are no public schools nearby. Atieno’s parents would not let her live with them: “To them it was not good that I left my husband and was spoiling tradition. Leaving a husband is like being a prostitute.”

M. Wanjiku

    M. Wanjiku, a forty-six-year-old woman with a graduate-level education, lost her home and virtually all her property when she and her husband separated. After Wanjiku discovered her husband’s infidelity in 1999, he became brutally violent and started threatening to kill her. One night, after Wanjiku’s husband told her, “This is the final threat—it’s the last time I’ll tell you I’m going to kill you,” she fled with her three children, their school clothes, and nothing for herself. She briefly stayed with her brother, who insisted that she return to her husband. She went back to her husband until the day he said, “I hate you. I mean what I’ve told you—I’m going to kill you,” and punched her in the mouth so hard she lost all of her front teeth. She left again with no property. She stayed with her sister until she was pressured by her sister to return to her husband, at which point Wanjiku moved to a small hotel room with her children.

    Wanjiku and her husband were well off, but she has none of the matrimonial property. When they separated in 2000, their property included rural land, a modern house on that land, a house in Nairobi, several cars, a beach plot, a commercial plot, shares in companies, money in a bank, a pension fund, furniture, and household goods. Wanjiku was formally employed throughout her marriage and bought most of the household goods and appliances. Her husband paid the mortgages and she paid school fees for the children.

    Wanjiku sought help from traditional, governmental, and religious authorities to resolve her marital problems, get some protection from the violence, and obtain maintenance for her children. These attempts ended so disastrously, and her husband is so threatening, that Wanjiku has not dared to pursue this further. When Wanjiku told the police about her husband’s death threats, an officer said, “You women—I always tell you when your husband comes home you should smile and cook good food.” When she talked to a priest, he told her, “God is punishing you for giving birth to only three children when you could have had more.” She went to a lawyer, who asked for a deposit of KSh30,000 (U.S.$377). Wanjiku paid the deposit, but could not afford to pay the lawyer to handle a legal separation. She also sought help from clan leaders in her husband’s rural hometown. A clan meeting was organized, and the elders seemed sympathetic. Yet when Wanjiku asked if she could live in the rural home, her father-in-law left the decision to her husband, who refused. Wanjiku not only lacks the money to pursue a property claim, but also fears for her life if she tried. “I can’t go to the police, a lawyer, the church, or my family. There is no help. All doors are closed,” she said.

M. Abudo

    A mother of eight children, M. Abudo’s violent husband separated from her and kept all of their property in Kisumu, including vehicles, land, and furniture. She got nothing. Abudo went to live with her mother, but her relatives forced her out when her mother died because they thought a daughter should not inherit. “I became homeless,” she said. “My relatives set upon me and beat me viciously. I was afraid I’d die.”

N. Ritah

    N. Ritah, a thirty-four-year-old woman, was separated from her husband on and off for several years. During one period of separation, she borrowed money, purchased land, and constructed a house, all in her name alone. When she reconciled with her husband in 2001, they moved into the house together. He became violent again, and accused her of sleeping with everyone who helped her construct the house. He threatened to kill her, slashed her face with a knife, and beat her so severely she could not get out of bed for three days. Ritah fled to her mother’s house. She obtained legal services from a women’s organization and filed for legal separation. Ritah’s lawyer sent her husband a letter demanding that he move out of the house, which he ignored. At a preliminary hearing, a judge refused to order Ritah’s husband to vacate the house even though the judge knew that Ritah paid for it herself and had title to the house. Ritah still pays the mortgage while she stays with friends and family, and her husband pays nothing. The experience of losing her home has been demoralizing. “Sometimes I cry until there are no more tears to cry,” she said.

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