Disowned: women’s struggle to own and inherit land in Tanzania

Article Date

21 March 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty kicks off on Mach 24 in Washington DC, I can’t help but think of the many rural – and landless – women of Tanzania. Earlier this month, I returned from the East African country, where the International Center for Research on Women has been supporting a number of local organizations working to secure women’s property rights. This is a complicated proposition in Tanzaniawhere the law of the land – on land – is contradictory. At its worst, it is even downright discriminatory, playing a part in perpetuating poverty in the developing nation.

On the one hand, some progress has been made. The Land and Village Acts of 1999 forbid gender discrimination, promote equality and specifically stipulate that women can own property. There are important provisions to protect women from exploitation, such as requiring spouses to obtain written consent before applying for a mortgage, and quotas for three out of seven representatives on local land dispute adjudication councils to be women.

On the other hand, the Customary Inheritance Act explicitly denies the right of women to inherit land and property. This means that despite the hard-won legislation that guarantees women’s rights to own land, or to not have their husbands sell the house without obtaining their consent, women continue to fall into a legal black hole as a result of customary law.  In the name of age-old tradition it virtually sanctions the perpetuation of discrimination against women by preventing them from owning land.

“Land goes hand in hand with inheritance,” says Veronica Hoella, an attorney who provides legal aid in Dar es Salaam. She told me about the case of a woman—let’s call her Solome—whose husband died, leaving her future in limbo.  Custom holds that upon death of a relative, the family convenes a clan meeting and appoints an administrator of the estate. This is usually not the wife, who is supposed to be grieving for a period of time following the death. In Solome’s case, her husband’s brother was appointed as administrator. In theory he was supposed to wait 90 days before settling the estate, with the widow’s approval. Instead, the brother divided the estate among surviving relatives in two weeks, excluding Solome. As is so often the case, she was forced to take her children and return to her parents’ home and care. When Solome took her case to the local court, the judge cited the discriminatory customary inheritance provision, leaving her with nothing.

Women face the same challenges in marriage and divorce. Another woman I’ll call Fatima was the second wife in a polygamous marriage. Her father gave her land – in her own name – as a wedding gift. However, upon marrying, the land was nonetheless registered in her husband’s name, and he later applied for a loan using the land as collateral, without telling Fatima. The spousal consent provision should have protected Fatima, but Tanzania does not have nationally-issued identification cards, so the husband was able to take another woman to the bank and have her forge Fatima’s signature, securing the loan. When he wasn’t able to make his payments, the bank seized the land and left Fatima with nothing.

“We have 30-50 women who come for legal aid like this in any given week,” says Latifa Ayoub Mwabondo, an advocate in the land rights department of the Tanzania Women’s Lawyers Association, the organization from which Fatima sought legal assistance after her husband defaulted on the loans. “Almost all of those cases deal with land or property.”

The dual legal system and contradictory laws have caused tremendous confusion among policymakers, the justice sector and Tanzanian citizens, so there is a growing movement to insert a constitutional provision explicitly stipulating a woman’s right to own and inherit property and land. Tanzania is currently conducting a national review of its Constitution, and this is chief among a number of women’s rights provisions that have been proposed. Indeed, women’s rights advocates have secured a considerable victory by successfully negotiating for a women’s rights section in the current draft, which includes provisions on the right to dignity, protection from violence, maternity leave and equal pay. Notably absent, however, has been the requested provision on land rights.

In response to this, advocates have formed a small coalition called the Mama Ardhi Alliance – Swahili for  the ‘Motherland’ Alliance– to draft and put forward a specific proposal to the Constitutional Constituent Assembly pushing for explicit language guaranteeing women’s rights to own and inherit land and property based on the Kenyan model.

“Since the Constitution is the mother law of the land, and no other law can contradict it, we need a constitutional provision that says women can own property,” says Hoella. Mwabondo tells me that even male local leaders such as Chair of Chanika community Mweloa Seif, have told her they will throw their support behind the campaign because they have seen how these discriminatory practices lead to economic strife, ultimately impeding development. Indeed, research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization puts a fine point on this, finding that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and pull 100-150 million people out of hunger.

“Chair Seif even told me he would demonstrate with us,” exclaims Mwabondo with a delighted smile.

With evidence pointing to numbers like that, it’s easy to see why.