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Women Stripped of Property

A report released by Human Rights Watch early this month chronicles cases of gross violation of women’s property rights.
Zachary Ochieng

Women throughout Kenya lose their homes, land, and other property due to discriminatory laws and customs. They are among the most discriminated against in the world in terms of property rights. This is according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the New York based international human rights watchdog. “Their rights to own, manage, inherit and dispose of property are under constant attack from customs, laws and individuals, including government officials, who believe the women cannot be trusted with or do not deserve property”, says the report.

The report – titled “Double Standards: Women’s property rights violation in Kenya” – was launched on March 4 by the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s women rights division Ms Janet Walsh, who was accompanied by Ms Judy Thongori, the chairperson of the Centre for Rehabilitation and Education of Abused Women (CREAW). It was launched at Nairobi’s Chester House.

This report is based on more than 130 interviews conducted in Kenya in October and November 2002 and prior and subsequent research. The interviews took place in Nairobi, Kajiado, Kisumu and Kiambu districts. Interviews were conducted with individual women and men from a variety of locations and ten ethnic groups (Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kamba, Kisii, Meru, Nandi, Maasai, Maragoli, and Asian/Punjabi) as well as government officials, United Nations representatives, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), lawyers, paralegals, academics, judges, members of law review commissions, religious officials, local traditional leaders, and donor officials. The report links the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and evictions to property rights violations. Human Rights Watch said property rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa perpetuate women's inequality, hamper development efforts, and undermine the fight against HIV/AIDS. “The devastating effects of the violations, including poverty, disease, violence and homelessness, harm women, children and Kenya’s overall development”, notes the report. “These women and their children (who may end up AIDS orphans) are likely to face not only social stigma against people affected by HIV/AIDS but also deprivations caused by property rights violations”, it adds.

"Women's property rights violations are not only discriminatory, they may also prove deadly," said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "In Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries, women are exposed to poverty, homelessness, violence and disease-including HIV/AIDS-when their property rights are abused, she added. The 51-page report examines the devastating impact of women's property rights violations in Kenya and how the constitution has perpetuated discrimination in property matters. According to the damning report, women are often excluded from inheriting property, evicted from their lands and homes by in-laws, and stripped of their possessions.

The report notes that a complex mix of cultural, legal, and social factors underlies women's property rights violations. Kenya's customary laws-largely unwritten but influential local norms that coexist with formal laws-are based on patriarchal traditions in which men inherited and largely controlled land and other property, and women were "protected" but had lesser property rights. “Past practices permeate contemporary customs that deprive women of property rights and silence them when those rights are infringed. Kenya's constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but undermines this protection by condoning discrimination under personal and customary laws”, says the report. More sad is the fact that some widows are forced to engage in risky sexual practices that can expose them to AIDS in order to keep their property, such as "wife inheritance," where women are inherited by male in-laws, and ritual "cleansing," where women are forced to have sex with men of low social standing.

The report also notes that divorced or separated women are frequently expelled from their homes with only their clothing. Due to outdated customs coupled with male chauvinism, married women can seldom stop their husbands from selling family property. It further sadly notes that women who attempt to fight back are often beaten, raped or ostracized.

It observes that these violations continue unabated although Kenya has ratified international treaties requiring it to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women (including discrimination in marriage and family relations), guarantee equality before the law and the equal protection of the law, and ensure that women have effective remedies if their rights are violated.

According to the report, these violations and their impact are further exacerbated by Kenya's high HIV/AIDS prevalence. It states that HIV-positive women, already harmed by stigma and discrimination, are gravely threatened by property rights violations. The report also observes that women's insecure property rights also hinder development by contributing to low agricultural production, food shortages, underemployment, and rural poverty.

While noting that the former regime abetted violation of women’s property rights, the report suggests that with a new government in office, movement toward a new constitution, and an upsurge in donor support, now is a pivotal time to improve women's property rights.

"For decades, the Kenyan government has ignored the crisis of women's unequal property rights," said Jefferson. "Kenya and donor agencies now have a historic opportunity to make property rights a reality for women," she added.

The report observes that the Kenyan government has promised a new constitution in the first half of 2003, after debating on the draft constitution. Accordingly, the proposed draft constitution, if implemented, would drastically improve women's property rights, including guarantees of equal rights to inherit and control property and prohibitions on customs and traditions that undermine women's dignity or status.

However, the report paints a gloomy picture of the future of such vulnerable groups and says: “The regions where these practices are common has Kenya’s highest Aids prevalence. The HIV infection rate in girls and young women there is six times higher than that of their male counterparts”. It adds: “Aids deaths in the coming years will result in millions more women becoming widows at younger ages than would otherwise be the case”.

While urging for protection of women’s property rights, Human Rights Watch called on the Kenyan government to institute legal reforms, implement programmes to prevent and redress property rights abuses, and punish those who violate women's property rights. Human Rights Watch also said the World Bank and other donors should use aid to eliminate women's property rights violations.

The report highlights cases of a few women whose property rights have been grossly violated. Emily 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 unprotected sex with Owino, against her will 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.

The report notes that in similar circumstances, a mother of eight children, Mary Abudo's violent husband separated from her and kept all of their property in the lakeside city of 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 would die."

When Susan Wagitangu's parents died, her brothers inherited the family land. "My sister and I didn't inherit," said Wagitangu, a fifty-three-year-old Kikuyu woman from central Kenya. "Traditionally, in my culture, once a woman gets married, she does not inherit from her father. The assumption is that once a woman gets married she will be given land where she got married."

But the report notes that this was not the case for Wagitangu. When her husband died, her brothers-in-law forced her off that homestead and took her cows. Wagitangu now lives in a Nairobi slum. "Nairobi has advantages," she said. "If I don't have food, I can scavenge in the garbage dump."

The report finally notes that currently, women find it almost hopeless to pursue remedies for property rights violations. Traditional leaders and governmental authorities often ignore women's property claims and sometimes make the problems worse. Courts overlook and misinterpret family property and succession laws. Women often have little awareness of their rights and seldom have means to enforce them.

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