Women’s Human Rights
Women’s Property Rights

Fact Sheet

Women’s Property Rights Violations in Kenya


    Women’s rights to property are unequal to those of men in Kenya. Their rights to own, inherit, manage, and dispose of property are under constant attack from customs, laws, and individuals - including government officials - who believe that women cannot be trusted with or do not deserve property. Women in Kenya constitute 80 percent of the agricultural labor force and provide 60 percent of farm income, yet own only 5 percent of the land. The devastating effects of property rights violations - including poverty, disease, violence, and homelessness - harm women, their children, and Kenya’s overall development.

    A complex mix of factors underlies women’s property rights violations in Kenya, particularly discriminatory laws and customs. The abuses reflect Kenya’s traditional, patriarchal property systems and the government’s failure to combat discrimination against women. With a new government office since January 2003 and movement toward a new constitution, now is a pivotal time to confront women’s property rights abuses in Kenya. Failure to do so will perpetuate women’s inequality, doom development efforts, and undermine the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Abuses of Women’s Property Rights

  • Limited Inheritance from Husbands. Many widows in Kenya are excluded from inheriting from their husbands. When men die, widows’ in-laws often evict them from their lands and homes and take other property, such as livestock and household goods.
  • Harmful Customary Practices. In some areas, widows are forced to engage in risky traditional practices involving unprotected sex in order to keep their property. These practices include wife inheritance, whereby a widow is “inherited” as a wife by a male relative of her deceased husband, and ritual “cleansing,” which involves sex with a social outcast, usually without a condom.
  • Unequal Inheritance from Parents. Women seldom inherit from their parents on an equal basis with their brothers since women are expected to marry and be “absorbed” by their husbands’ families.
  • Unequal Division of Property upon Divorce or Separation. Divorced and separated women are frequently expelled by their husbands from their homes with nothing more than their clothing.
  • Married Women’s Lack of Control over Property. Married women can seldom stop their husbands from selling valuable family property. Men are typically the registered landowners holding title deeds, and there is no legal bar against selling family land without their wives’ consent.

Contributing Factors

  • Discriminatory Laws and Customs. Kenya’s constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex, but condones discrimination in personal and customary laws—which are central to property rights. A number of statutes also have discriminatory elements. The Law of Succession Act provides that a widow’s inheritance rights are terminated upon remarriage; widowers’ inheritance rights do not terminate upon remarriage. The Law of Succession Act is poorly enforced and has problematic exemptions. Case law establishes that family property may be evenly divided if the woman can prove contribution, but in practice, women rarely get property upon separation or divorce. Land laws, while not discriminatory on their face, do not promote or facilitate women’s land ownership. Finally, customary laws based on gender distinctions give men greater rights than women over property.
  • Biased Attitudes. Many officials and traditional leaders are biased against women; some say that women are untrustworthy or do not deserve equal property rights. One senior chief said: “A woman and the cows are a man’s property,” underscoring women’s low place in Kenyan society.
  • Unresponsive Government and Traditional Authorities. Chiefs, elders, and police often turn away women who come to them with property problems, saying these are family matters not worthy of their attention. Government officials admit that women’s property rights are not a priority. There are no government programs specifically aimed at preventing and remedying such violations.
  • Ineffective Courts. Lawyers and individual women complain that Kenya’s courts are biased against women, slow, corrupt, and often staffed with ill-trained or incompetent judges and magistrates. The Family Division of the High Court, which was established to expedite family law cases, operates only in Nairobi and is thus inaccessible to many women, especially in rural areas.
  • Other Obstacles to Women Claiming Property Rights. Women face serious obstacles to claiming their property rights. Many Kenyan women are unaware that they have legal property rights or have no idea how to enforce them. The time and expense of pursuing property claims can be insurmountable. Women also face violence and social stigma if they attempt to claim property. Moreover, nongovernmental organizations that work on women’s property rights are harassed for doing their work.

Recommendations to Kenya’s Government and Donors

    The government of Kenya must take immediate steps to improve systematically women’s property rights in law and in practice and remove obstacles to their realization. Donor agencies should support these efforts. For example:

    • The government should enact legislation and constitutional provisions that prohibit gender-based discrimination and promote women’s equal property rights.

    • The government should provide civic education and training of government officials and traditional leaders on women’s property rights.

    • Donors must ensure that aid they provide to Kenya is used to improve women’s property rights. This should include supporting social, legal, and educational programs on women’s property rights.

What You Can Do

    If you want to stop the pervasive violations of women’s property rights that expose Kenyan women to poverty, violence, homelessness, and disease, take action now! Write or call your government officials and donor representatives to express your concern. For sample letters and contact information, please visit http://www.hrw.org/women.

    For more 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/.

See also: Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and Women’s Property Rights in Africa

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