HIV-positive widows in Kenya fight for their land rights

Article Date

23 October 2015

Article Author

Gina Alvarado

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This blog was originally published by the Guardian on March 26, 2014. 

Across the port city of Kisumu in western Kenya, widowed women are struggling to survive.

Many have been cast out of the homes they shared with their husbands. Some are living with or have been affected by HIV. And far too often, widows find themselves living behind shops at local markets, collecting food to sustain themselves and their children another day.

They include women like Maureen Ochieng, who in 2001, at 29 years old, found herself homeless, struggling to make ends meet. After her husband died of an HIV-related infection that year, Maureen’s father-in-law chased her away and took everything she possessed, including her husband’s carpentry machines.

She lived and worked in the market for seven years with her two daughters by her side.

But there were others in the market, too: representatives from KELIN, a nonprofit organization dedicated to responding to the legal, ethical, and human rights issues related to health and HIV and AIDS. KELIN staffers identify widows through community-based organizations and respond to individual requests for support.

KELIN is one of 11 East African organizations the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is working with to strengthen their capacity to secure women’s property rights in the region. ICRW is striving to improve these organizations’ ability to monitor, evaluate, and ultimately improve the effectiveness of their property rights programming in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

In Kenya, we have partnered with the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya Land Alliance, and KELIN, three organizations committed to ensuring that Kenyan women have equal rights to property and assets, which include everything from the land they farm to the home and household items they share with their husbands.

Research shows that when women own land, housing, and livestock, their overall wellbeing improves, as does the quality of life of their families. Economies grow stronger, too. Property ownership also boosts women’s bargaining power at home and in their communities. With it, they can gain more control over life decisions that can improve their health and economic stability.

In Kenya, ICRW is working with KELIN on its efforts that are unfolding in Kisumu’s Nyanza province. As is typical in traditional law, only men can inherit land. This limitation of women’s rights runs counter to Kenya’s new 2010 constitution, which reflected significant progress to advance women’s equal access to and control over property as well as protect the rights of spouses. Then, in 2012, parliament introduced the Matrimonial Property Bill, which builds upon constitutional protections by further defining spousal rights in regards to matrimonial property. The legislation calls for recognizing spouses’ equal rights to property acquired upon marriage—regardless of the contribution either partner makes toward it. This is also true in the case of a separation, divorce, or death. The bill is still awaiting presidential approval.

Tradition, however, dictates that women who become widows should marry a member of their deceased husband’s kin to stay in their homes. Women who do not follow this custom are chastised and kicked out of their marital homes. Because of the same traditions, some widows are also unwelcome in their own families. Many become homeless with their children.

Further complicating matters is the rate of HIV infection in Kenya, particularly in Nyanza province, where 15 percent of its residents were living with HIV in 2012. Nationally, some 50 percent of adults over the age of 15 living with HIV are women. The epidemic, in combination with women’s lack of land rights, has resulted in a growing number of widows being cast aside by their families.

KELIN staffers connect with widows and engage community elders as mediators to help women reclaim property they shared with their husbands or find new places to live. KELIN educates elders—the peacekeepers and custodians of tradition—on mediation, women’s rights, and provisions of the 2010 constitution.

In Maureen’s case, she learned about KELIN through her membership in a support group for widows and orphans. KELIN intervened by reaching out to Maureen’s father-in-law and elders in her community. Her father-in-law relented, and in time—and with the elders’ persistence—he gave her a plot of land back. With support from the Open Society Foundation, KELIN and community members helped build Maureen a house on the property, where she farms.

Despite the gravity of the situation, there are very few programs in Kenya—and around the globe—that simultaneously address securing women’s property rights and work with HIV-affected women. We’ve also found that little evidence exists to illustrate the scope of the problem in the region or the effectiveness of programs aimed at securing the property rights of widows affected by HIV.

This dearth of evidence hinders the ability of organizations like KELIN to secure critical investments in programs that work with this often-overlooked population of widows—and women affected by HIV—on their land rights. Meanwhile, the clash between customary and constitutional law continues; enforcing laws that guarantee women’s equal access to property can be a formidable task, particularly in societies where gender norms perpetuate inequality and where women’s contributions are undervalued.

Regardless of the country or context, a person’s right to property is a fundamental human right. Securing women’s right to property in Kenya, as in many other countries, is, in the end, about ensuring women’s safety and survival.

Gina Alvarado is a gender and evaluation specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).