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In Kenya, Uganda, Women's Rights Linked to Men

While there are laws in Kenya and Uganda that support women owning, inheriting, and controlling land and property, it seldom happens in practice. Women in the East African countries often find that their rights hinge on their relationships with men, and lose everything if and when those relationships end. Discriminatory laws and customs often uphold this disparity.

Many widows who consult Nairobi-based social worker Hellen Ochieng have only the clothes on their back, after living for many years with their husbands in homes or on farms.

Instead of continuing to stay in their marital homes, the widows commonly find themselves in Nairobi's teeming slums or back with their parents, often bringing several children in tow.

Ms. Ochieng says that, under so-called customary laws, it is typically the deceased husband's relatives who snatch the family's land and possessions, leaving the widows literally out in the cold.

"The properties are taken away from them, especially when the husband just dies like today," said Ms. Ochieng. "Tomorrow, even before the burial, the family members will start taking away the household goods, like the television set, the refrigerators, some expensive gadgets that they could be having in the house. They are chased away. [The relatives say] now our son is no longer there, is no longer alive, so you cannot stay in this home, you have to look for your own home."

Technically, under Kenya's Law of Succession of 1981, a surviving spouse is entitled to inherit household and personal goods of the deceased, and can use land, houses, and other property. If the surviving spouse is a woman, she can use the property until she remarries.

But muddying the waters (confusing the situation) is another piece of legislation, the 1882 Married Women's Property Act.

Division of property under the act is not clearly set out. Landmark cases have established that women are entitled to half of the family property in cases of death or divorce, but only if they can prove that they contributed to the household.

The director of the Kenyan office of the Federation of Women Lawyers, Jane Onyango, says it is only fair that property be divided equally once the marriage breaks down, and that the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, passed long before the Kenya gained its independence, should be amended to reflect that fairness.

"We are saying that it's about time that we had our own home-grown law recognizing that [the role of] women, as they were perceived then, is different from what they are today," said Ms. Onyango. "Today women are working, they are earning money, and even if they are not, they are making substantial contributions, and that should be recognized within our laws."

Ms. Onyango says many magistrates base their rulings on customary law in property inheritance cases, even though the country's current constitution says that customary law is subordinate to written law.

Ms. Ochieng, the social worker, estimates that as many as 70 percent of widows have their property taken away from them by in-laws. She says most women, especially in the rural areas, are unaware of their rights under the law and do not know where to turn for support.

Women are traditionally not allowed to own or inherit property and land in most ethnic groups.

In some communities, a widow can only keep her property if she is "inherited" by a brother-in-law, meaning that she becomes his wife, or if she undergoes a "cleansing" ceremony in which she has sex with an outcast.

Even within a marriage, Ms. Ochieng says, many women are unable to enjoy the use or control of property.

"You'll just hear that your husband was owning this, from friends or probably from his relatives. Others would buy a car they would not tell you. They'll tell you that this is a company car. So you wouldn't know that this is his private car," she said. "So when something happens, and then when they call the next of kin, that is when you'll realize this person had land somewhere, and he was not telling the wife."

Many widows in neighboring Uganda also face the problem of being chased away from their marital homes by in-laws.

Under the laws of Uganda, as in Kenya, women do have ownership and inheritance rights. The Village Land Act of 1999 prohibits the application of customary law if it denies women lawful access to ownership, occupancy, or use of land.

Another law, the Land Act of 1998, requires consent by spouses or children before family land can be sold, while under statutory law, widows are entitled to certain proportions of their late husbands' estate.

But the laws are often not implemented in practice.

An official with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Christine Birabwa-Nsubuga, describes the situation facing many widows, especially in the rural areas.

"The wives will be left with nothing," she said. "If they're lucky, they'll be left with a thing or two. If the women are young, some people are thinking, 'you're going to remarry, you can't take our property with you; this is our son's property.' Some of them go back to the families they had before they married. If the relatives of the man are kind to that lady, she might remain with the relatives of the family. She might be married off to one of the brothers or the relatives of the man."

In the case of divorce, Ms. Birabwa-Nsubuga says the Ugandan court system will usually divide property, but in customary law, property automatically reverts back to the man.

She and her organization are pushing for the passage of a Domestic Relations Bill, which says, among other things, that women should own property.