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Human Rights Watch Documents Abuse of Women's Rights in Kenya - 2003-03-04

A new report by Human Rights Watch concludes that lack of basic property rights is causing many women in Kenya to lead lives marked by poverty and homelessness.

In Kenya, women rarely inherit property on an equal basis with men.

When 36-year-old Rose Otaye's husband died of AIDS a few years ago, her in-laws told her that before she could inherit her husband's property she must first take part in customary sexual practices.

First, she would be cleansed by having sexual intercourse with a fisherman. She would then be inherited, or remarried, to one of her husband's brothers.

When Ms. Otaye, who is HIV positive, refused, she and her five children were evicted from their home and left destitute.

Once relatively affluent, Ms. Otaye says she is now so poor she has had to turn to charity.

"Life has been tough because I can't provide my children with their basic needs," she said. "I have to beg for the people to pay school fees for my kids. Yet if I had my property, at least my children could have had a good standard of living because I could start from where I was."

Her experience is not at all unusual in Kenya. The new report by Human Rights Watch, called Double Standards: Women's Property Rights Violations in Kenya, documents more than a hundred such stories.

Kenya's new government has promised to enact a new constitution this year, which includes provisions that give women equal property rights with men.

But the report's author, Janet Walsh, says, even before the constitution is enacted, the government can improve the situation by enforcing laws that already exist.

"Laws that should protect women's property rights, like the Law of Succession Act, must be fully implemented," Janet Walsh said. "Violations of those laws must be investigated and punished."

Ms. Walsh says the government should also launch awareness campaigns to educate the public, judges and traditional leaders about women's property rights.