Today is International Widows’ Day, when countries around the world recognize the violence, discrimination, and ostracism millions of widows face, and celebrate their important contributions. It’s a day when all governments—including Tanzania’s—should take firm action to protect widows’ human rights.
Last year, in a landmark decision, a United Nations committee on women’s rights found that the Tanzanian government had violated widows’ rights. Two widows, referred to as E.S. and S.C. in case filings, took their cases to the UN after Tanzanian courts rejected their claim to equal rights to inherit and administer property. The UN committee found a multitude of problems, both for these women, and in the Tanzanian legal system.
Tanzania promised to fix the problems. But a year has passed. It needs to move ahead quickly so that widows can claim their rights.
E.S.’s husband died in 1999. Her brother-in-law kicked her out of her marital home, forcing her and her three small children to move in with her parents. S.C. and her infant were left in similar straits when her husband died in 2000, and her in-laws took over their home and other property.
Under the customary law for the Shinyanga region, where these women lived, widows have no right to inherit from husbands if the husbands had sons or any blood relatives. The region’s customary law, which was codified in 1963, provides that a widow “has no share of the inheritance if the deceased left relatives of his clan; her share is to be cared for by her children, just as she cared for them.” The customary law provides that the deceased’s heir should take care of the widow, but in practice, his relatives often chase the widow away from their land and home. The customary law also cuts widows out of administering an estate: it provides that estates should be administered by the deceased’s eldest brother, father, or other male relative, or a sister if there is no male relative. No women can inherit or own clan land, including widows.
The situation is different for men, even though the customary law gives the impression that the widower doesn’t inherit from his deceased wife. Tanzania’s Law Reform Commission pointed out that, in fact, widowers don’t need to inherit because of the customary presumption that “it is only the husband who had personal property interest in the property so jointly acquired by the couple during the marriage.” A law journal article on inheritance in Tanzania, quoting the Commission, points out that this presumption makes it unnecessary to designate a widower as administrator of the estate or to divide the inheritance at the wife’s death. He has no need to “inherit”. When she dies, he already owns everything. When he dies, she owns nothing, and so desperately needs to inherit to survive.
Tanzania’s constitution has protections for women’s rights. Article 13 guarantees women equality under the law without discrimination based on sex, and article 107A(2) guarantees compensation to victims of wrongdoing. With this in mind, E.S. and S.C. sought help in Tanzania’s courts. The High Court recognized that the customary laws discriminated against widows, but nonetheless rejected their claims in 2006. The Court of Appeals took four years to hear the case, then dismissed it on a technicality.
E.S. and S.C. didn’t give up. Represented by the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania and the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC, these widows made their case before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW Committee).
In a 2015 decision, the CEDAW Committee found that the Tanzanian government had violated these widows’ rights by denying them “equality in respect of inheritance and failed to provide them with any other form of redress.” It also found that Tanzania’s courts had violated their rights of access to justice and an effective remedy. It recommended that the Tanzanian government compensate both widows for the violation of their rights, and called for constitutional and customary law reforms and practical measures to eliminate this discrimination.
More than a year later, Tanzania has not paid any compensation, and the women’s lawyers say the government has made no progress on the broader reforms. In March, the CEDAW Committee again called upon Tanzania to take immediate action on widows’ human rights.
In April, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the government urging action. Shortly afterward, a news report quoted the foreign affairs minister, Dr. Augustine Mahiga, saying that women’s right to inherit is an important issue, and that the government would amend relevant legislation. “It is something that needs to be pushed and we have to fast-track it,” the Minister said.
So what is the holdup?
Tanzania should recognize its legal obligations under the treaty, but also do what’s right for the country: compensate these widows, and ensure that women and men can inherit and administer property equally.
Let’s hope that on International Widows’ Day next year, there’s reason to celebrate in Tanzania.