Skip to main content

Letter to President Bush on Women's Property Rights and HIV/AIDS in Kenya and Uganda

 

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

October 6, 2003

Re: HIV/AIDS and Women's Rights in Kenya and Uganda

Dear President Bush:

Your visit to Africa in July and your HIV/AIDS initiative for Africa and the Caribbean are signs of your concern about the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We share your concern, and are particularly alarmed at how violence and discrimination against women are fueling the spread of AIDS in Africa.

As you meet with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki today and continue your dialog with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, we hope you will emphasize to them the importance of focusing on women's rights within the fight against HIV/AIDS. This letter describes the findings from our research on women's rights violations in Kenya and Uganda and how they relate to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Kenya: Women's Property Rights Violations and HIV/AIDS

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 who believe that women do not deserve or are incapable of handling property. Women in Kenya constitute 80 percent of the agricultural labor force 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.

Abuses of women's property rights in Kenya take many forms. For example:

  • 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 are said to happen even more readily when the husband is believed to have died of AIDS.
  • In some regions, 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 deceased husband takes the widow as a wife, often in what amounts to a forced marriage. "Cleansing" usually involves coerced sex with a social outcast, supposedly to cleanse the woman of her deceased husband's evil spirits.

The staggering number of AIDS deaths expected in Kenya 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 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 face 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 shelter they need to endure this debilitating disease.

In August, Human Rights Watch visited a group of women and men who live in one of Nairobi's most impoverished slums and who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Like many other slum dwellers, the members of the Solosia Welfare Organization have banded together to provide each other support. Many of the women in the group had suffered property rights violations when their husbands died, losing everything they needed to survive. The group asked us to send the letter to you that is attached to this letter and is based on our conversation with them.

As you meet with President Kibaki today, we hope you will express your concern about how women's property rights violations fuel the spread of AIDS and will urge President Kibaki to:

  • Enact legislation and constitutional provisions that prohibit gender-based discrimination and promote women's equal property rights;
  • Undertake programmatic and institutional reforms to better prevent and remedy women's property rights violations, including within HIV/AIDS programs; and
  • Provide civic education and training to government officials and traditional leaders on women's property rights.

Moreover, we hope that the U.S. government will ensure that aid provided to Kenya, including assistance relating to HIV/AIDS, is used to improve women's equal property rights.

Uganda: Domestic Violence and HIV/AIDS

Despite Uganda's acknowledged success in reducing HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, the threats from AIDS are far from over. Many thousands of Ugandan women are becoming infected with HIV, and will eventually die of AIDS, because the government is failing to protect them from domestic violence. Our recent report, "Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women's Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda," documents widespread rape and brutal attacks on women by their husbands in Uganda, where a domestic violence law has not been enacted and where spousal rape is not criminalized. Uganda's popular campaigns promoting condom use, abstinence, and monogamy-while limiting somewhat the spread of AIDS-fail to address the ways in which domestic violence inhibits women's control over sexual matters in marriage and minimize the complex causal factors of violence. Education on sexual abstinence will not help women and girls in Uganda and many parts of Africa if they lack autonomy in their marriages and sexual lives.

As with Kenya, property rights in Uganda are essential to economic survival. Women's unequal property and inheritance rights in Uganda contribute to women's poverty and place them at a social disadvantage. Women often have no choice but to remain in abusive relationships: without effective property rights, they simply have no alternatives. This dilemma was reiterated by a group of women Human Rights Watch met in Uganda in August. The women of the Sibabinwere Women's Group, a grassroots support group for women with HIV/AIDS near Kampala, told us that when their husbands died or they divorced, they lost the land and possessions they needed to survive and care for their children. These women asked that we send the attached letter to you.

As you continue your dialog with President Museveni, we hope that you will emphasize the links between domestic violence and women's vulnerability to HIV. In particular, we hope that you will urge the Ugandan government to:

  • Enact laws that prohibit and redress domestic violence and criminalize marital rape;
  • Amend discriminatory marriage and property laws;
  • Make women's health, physical integrity, and equal rights in marriage a central focus of HIV/AIDS programming and awareness campaigns; and
  • Support nongovernmental organizations that work on domestic violence, including those that target men and aim to prevent domestic violence and offer shelters, counseling, legal advice, and health services.

Finally, we wish to underscore that the global catastrophe of HIV/AIDS requires a coordinated global response. While we appreciate your intention to move the United States forward as a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, we are concerned that by emphasizing bilateral initiatives and straying from internationally coordinated efforts such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the United States will miss important opportunities to effectively combat the scourge of AIDS.

Sincerely,

LaShawn R. Jefferson
Executive Director
Women's Rights Division

CC: President Mwai Kibaki
President Yoweri Museveni

 

Enclosures:

 

Letter from the Solosia Welfare Organization, Nairobi, Kenya

Dear President Bush:

Greetings from the Solosia Welfare Organization. We are a group of slum dwellers from Mukuru kwa Njenga in Nairobi. Since you were not able to visit Kenya when you came to Africa, we wanted to write you this letter.

We in the Mukuru kwa Njenga slum have many problems. We are hungry, we need clothing, many of us have HIV/AIDS, and it is difficult to educate our children. Many of the women living in our slum have lost their homes and property when they became widows or were chased away by their husbands. All of us are worried about losing our meager homes in the slum because we don't have title for the land. Sometimes, officials even demolish our homes. We don't know where to turn for assistance. We need information centers in our neighborhood.

Many of the children in our slum are AIDS orphans. We try to take care of them, but it is hard to meet their needs for food, education, clothing, and medicine. Some of the children have dropped out of school and are inhaling glue.

Some of the women in our organization provide home-based care to people suffering from AIDS. They aren't trained in medicine, but they do what they can to help the sick people. We wish we had more clinics or a hospital to care for the people in our slum.

We want to be able to sustain ourselves, but we need assistance to get started. We hope that you will be able to help us.

Sincerely,

The Solosia Welfare Organization

 

Letter from the Sibabinwere Women's Group, Kisasi, Uganda

Dear President Bush:

We are a group of Ugandan women that supports each other with HIV/AIDS care and with income-generating projects. All of us have lost property, like our homes, land, or other items, when we became widows or when we divorced.

When you came to Uganda, you promised to help people with HIV/AIDS. We thank you for your promise, and would like to know when it will be fulfilled so that we can get immediate help.

Ugandan women who are HIV positive are in a bad state. Many are weak and close to dying. But the medicine the women need is expensive, and many don't have enough money for it. It is also expensive to pay for transport to the hospital to get medication. Some of us are homeless and are struggling to educate our children.

We hope that the United States will quickly send assistance for women with HIV/AIDS and that it will reach groups like ours.

Sincerely,

Sibabinwere Women's Group

 

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.