Women’s Human Rights
Women’s Property Rights

Q&A: Women’s Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

What are women’s property rights?

    Women’s property rights are their rights to own, acquire (through purchase, gift, or inheritance), manage, administer, enjoy, and dispose of tangible and intangible property, including land, housing, money, bank accounts, livestock, crops, and pensions. Under international human rights law, women and men are entitled to equal legal protection of their property rights.

Why are women’s equal property rights important?

    Women’s equal property rights are important because they are fundamental to women’s economic security, social and legal status, and sometimes their survival. Achieving women’s equality with respect to property is a critical aspect of development and social stability in post-conflict situations. Women’s equal property rights are also important within the fight against HIV/AIDS: violations of these rights make women more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and speed their deaths when their homes and assets are taken.

What are some common ways women’s property rights are violated?

    Women’s property rights are violated in many degrading ways. For example, many women are excluded from inheriting, evicted from their lands and homes by in-laws, stripped of their possessions, and forced to engage in risky and nonconsensual sexual practices in order to keep their property. When they divorce or separate from their husbands, women are often expelled from their homes with only their clothing. Married women can seldom stop their husbands from selling family property. Women who fight back are often beaten, raped, or ostracized.

What factors contribute to women’s property rights violations?

    A number of factors contribute to women’s property rights violations. Chief among them are discriminatory laws and customs, biased attitudes, unresponsive authorities, and ineffective courts. In addition, women face many obstacles to claiming their property rights, including low levels of awareness of their rights, the time and expense of pursuing claims, and the social stigma of being considered greedy or traitors to culture if they assert their rights. NGOs that work with these women also face harassment for their work.

What are the consequences of these abuses?

    Property rights violations keep women unequal and dependent on men, and can even threaten their survival. After suffering property rights violations, women end up impoverished, living in squalor, and at risk for violence and disease. In countries with high HIV/AIDS rates, there will be many more young widows in the coming years than would have been the case without AIDS. These women, already disadvantaged by stigma and discrimination, will be gravely threatened by property rights violations—they’ll lose the assets they need to procure medical treatment, and will suffer when they lose the shelter they need to survive this debilitating disease.

Do women’s property rights violations hurt development?

    Yes. Gender inequality hinders development: women’s insecure property rights contribute to low agricultural production, food shortages, underemployment, and poverty. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa’s rate of economic growth has fallen approximately 4 percent because of HIV/AIDS, which has close links to property rights violations, and labor productivity has been cut by up to 50 percent in the countries hardest hit by AIDS.

What human rights standards relate to women’s property rights?

    Unequal property rights and related harmful customary practices violate international human rights law, which proscribes discrimination on the basis of sex. Human rights law sets out certain civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and requires governments to respect and fulfill those rights in a nondiscriminatory way. It also contains the principle of state responsibility for abuses by private actors.

    Some of the rights and obligations under human rights law that may be implicated by women’s property rights violations are:

    • The rights to nondiscrimination and equality

    • The obligation to eliminate prejudices, customs, and practices based on the idea of inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women

    • The obligation to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in marriage and family relations

    • The right to sexual autonomy

    • The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health

    • The right to information

    • The right to equal legal capacity

    • The right to property

    • The right to equal legal inheritance rights

    • The right to equal protection of the law

    • The right to adequate housing

    • The obligation to ensure that the conditions for exercise of women’s property rights are free of coercion, discrimination, and violence

    • The right to an effective remedy

What should governments do to prevent and remedy violations of women’s property rights?

    There are many actions that governments can take to protect women’s property rights. For example:

    • Enact legislation to protect women’s property rights, implement such legislation, and monitor compliance

    • Launch public awareness campaigns to inform the people about women’s equal property rights

    • Train judges, magistrates, police, and relevant local and national officials on laws relating to women’s equal property rights and their responsibility to enforce them

    • Ensure that court systems can handle women’s property rights claims fairly and efficiently

    • Establish national legal aid systems with the capacity to handle women’s civil property claims

    • Establish shelters for domestic violence victims and women who have suffered property rights violations

    • Include in HIV/AIDS programs information about the link between property rights violations and HIV/AIDS

    • Design housing programs to address women’s housing problems, especially those of widows, divorced or separated women, mothers, and HIV/AIDS affected women

    • Establish gender units in all ministries

    • Ensure that private acts that violate women’s property rights are investigated, prosecuted, and punished

What should donor agencies and donor governments do to combat these abuses?

    Donor agencies (such as the World Bank) must play a critical role in eliminating violations of women’s property rights as they promote women’s human rights and economic development. They should:

    • Work with governments to ensure that development policies and programs are designed and implemented to promote women’s property rights and that concrete steps are taken to eliminate discriminatory laws and customs that undermine development efforts, specifically in the area of women’s equal property rights.

    • Urge governments to enforce legal sanctions against those who violate women’s property rights.

    • Speak out publicly and emphatically in support of women’s equal property rights and condemn violations of those rights.

Isn’t it interfering with culture when women seek equal property rights?

    In many countries, property ownership, use, and inheritance are regulated in practice by customary laws—mostly unwritten but influential local norms—based on gender distinctions. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, these customary laws have even greater influence than statutory law when it comes to women’s property rights. Some of these customary laws, such as the ones prevalent in Kenya, effectively deprive women of property rights both in their natal and marital clans.

    Those who defend discriminatory customary property systems say that women are adequately protected in those systems because either their parents or their husbands’ clans are supposed to take care of the women. They say that this is part of their culture and should not be subject to human rights norms. This is problematic in several ways. First, the rampant property rights violations in Kenya and other countries (including eviction of widows from their homes and lands and property grabbing by in-laws) show that the customary systems do not adequately protect women. Second, the notion that women must be protected by men degrades women’s autonomy and rights. Third, these customs generally stem from pre-colonial times, when social and family structures were drastically different from today. Fourth, governments have an obligation under universal human rights norms to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including those emanating from culture. Many of the countries where women’s property rights are violated have ratified human rights treaties requiring that they prevent and remedy violations of women’s equal property rights. While it is important to respect diversity of culture, discriminatory aspects of culture—just like any other norm—must be transformed.

How does the HIV/AIDS epidemic relate to women’s property rights?

    The HIV/AIDS epidemic magnifies the devastation of property violations. HIV/AIDS preferentially claims the lives of young adults; in Africa this mostly means married persons with children. Thus, millions of children are orphaned because of AIDS and millions of women are widowed at a relatively young age, often having contracted HIV from their husbands. Widows may have to undergo customary “wife inheritance” or “cleansing” rituals—often involving unprotected sex—in order to keep their property, practices that put them at risk of contracting and spreading HIV. Domestic violence victims, who often tolerate abuse because they otherwise have little chance of keeping their property and staying in their homes, risk HIV exposure due to the coercive sex, inability to negotiate condom use, and impediments to seeking health services that tend to accompany domestic violence.

    As HIV-positive women fight a losing battle against AIDS and struggle to care for their families, the least they should count on is a roof over their heads and keeping their possessions. To attain some relief from the agony of AIDS, they may need every last asset to exchange against the cost of medical care and basic survival expenses. Many women have no such luck.

What are customary “wife inheritance” and “cleansing” rituals?

    Wife inheritance and cleansing rituals are customary practices common in some communities in sub-Saharan Africa. These practices vary from community to community. In wife inheritance, a male relative of the dead husband typically takes over the widow as a wife, often junior to other wives. In some forms of ritual cleansing, a widow has to have 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 practices, condoms are seldom used. Wife inheritance and ritual cleansing are closely related to women’s property rights in that many widows are not allowed to stay in their homes or on their lands unless they succumb to these practices. These practices are sometimes said to be protective of women since the women gain the legitimacy and security of being in a male-headed household and are “purified” of evil spirits. The other side of the story is that these practices are predatory and exploitive (in that the “protector” gains the widow’s labor and her deceased husband’s property) and contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

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