How widows are disinherited in name of culture

Prudence Kai, founder of the Hopes and Dreams widows and widowers caucus with some of the 12,000 registered widows in Kilifi County protesting against Gender Based Violence (GBV) against widows during the 16 days of GBV activism at Mariakani. 

Four years ago, Furaha Charo, a widow from Kilifi, was evicted from her matrimonial home by in-laws, a rampant occurrence in most communities.

The 43-year-old mother of six is living as a squatter with barely a roof over her head and enough food for her children. “My life has been hell since my husband died I was thrown out of my matrimonial house. I joined other widows on the piece of land that they had settled on as squatters,” said Charo.

In a case of giving a dog a bad name before you kill it, Charo said she was branded a witch and accused of killing her husband by in-laws who took over her land and house.

“I contemplated committing suicide countless times,” she said.

Charo is among the many widows or single mothers who have been disinherited by either relatives or neighbours and are wallowing in poverty.

Unlike widows, the Kenya Demographic Health Survey Report 2022, shows that widowers in the golden age, lead in property ownership, followed by married men or those cohabiting and the divorced or the separated.

From the report, every nine out of 10 men between 50 to 54 years are homeowners, while six out of 10 women aged 45 to 49 own houses.

In the report, North Eastern and the Coast are among the regions where women do not have land title deeds to prove ownership of places they stay, with Wajir, Bomet and Tana River topping the list.

Some of the 12,000 registered widows in Kilifi County under the Hopes and Dreams widows and widowers caucus show certificates after graduating from climate change programs they undertake as part of empowerment projects to alleviate out of poverty.

Equally, KDHS 2022 report reveals that Wajir, Garissa, Mandera and Nairobi lead in counties where women do not own houses. 

“Three out of four women do not own agricultural land, while two out of three women do not own houses, indicating a significant economic limitation towards development and investments,” reads the report.

Like Charo, the life of Prudence Kai, founder of Hopes and Dreams Widows and Widowers Caucus, changed from posh to being homeless after her husband died.

Kai, who has been advocating the rights of widows in land ownership, says cultural beliefs have seen most women deprived of their right to land ownership by greedy in-laws.

“My husband was a well-established business who gave us a comfortable life, but upon his demise, things changed drastically. Before I could bury him, the in-laws were already snatching his property. I moved out for the sake of my peace and the safety of my children,” says Kai.

Kai says widows are invisible in society, and their children suffer rejection forcing most of them to join criminal gangs like Wakili Kwanza because of the hardships and trauma they have experienced and the rejection they have seen their mothers and sisters suffer.

She says that most women suffer Gender-based Violence (GBV) at the hands of their in-laws and choose to leave after declining to sleep with their dead husbands as a ritual for the dead.

According to Fatma Said, a resident of Tana River, the women in the county have no say in land matters, including inheritance. She says despite being married, she doesn’t co-own land with her husband.

“I know the constitution allows us women to own and inherit land equally but there are traditions and cultures in Tana River which oppress women,” says Said.

She says in Tana River, like many areas, most widows are chased out of their matrimonial homes and asked to leave their children behind.

The mother of three, who majors in agribusiness, says the lack of land or title deeds has inhibited them from making economic progress as they cannot secure loans to expand their business.

“If I had a title deed, I would expand and progress myself. However, the land in Tana River has no title deeds, including the one owned by my husband,” says Said.

She says women need to be educated and enlightened about their rights towards land ownership considering a quarter of those who own land are educated and exposed about their rights, unlike the majority illiterate ones.

Kenya Lands Alliance Coast Chapter Chair, Samshan Najil, attributed the trend to outdated cultural beliefs that classify women as properties of their husbands and hence cannot own any land.

Najil says the Land Act has failed women because it stipulates that in a registered marriage, everything done on a piece of land has to be jointly registered.

“Most issues about widows in Kenya are about land issues. They are always evicted from matrimonial homes. Sincerely, it is the government that has failed by not doing joint titling,” says Najil.

Tana River land paralegal officer Rashid Onchaga says that, in Tana River, land problems are pegged on the high illiteracy level among women because taking a girl to school remains a big challenge.

He says bad cultures, community attitude, and poor governance limits women’s involvement in decision-making and land ownership programmes.

Likewise, he says that most men in Wajir and Garissa are stuck in their retrogressive cultures that see women as inferior.

“There is resistance from elders who have a say in the community. They need to change the tradition which looks at women as inferiors because it has contributed a big percentage to the problem of land ownership,” says Onchaga.

However, Maendeleo ya Wanawake chair in Wajir Rukia Abdullahi says women in the county own land and houses unlike in the past when they didn’t understand the value of land.

She says that with the availability of over Sh200 million in funds for women through women empowerment enterprises and investment funds, the majority of women now have invested in land, especially in urban settings.

According to the KDHS report, house ownership among women increases with increasing wealth and as Abdullahi points out, women in urban areas can own property and invest more due to availability of funds.

“The KDHS report is not factual, women in Wajir own land and houses. I built my house back in 1984, so no one can say women don’t own land. In the past our mothers had land but they never understood its value nowadays women own land and houses,” says Abdullahi.

Munira Nyadzua, an entrepreneur and farmer in Kilifi County, is not keen on getting a share of her father’s land. She believes her father did enough by educating her now she can buy herself land.

Nyadzua, a retired banker, is among a minority of seven per cent of women according to the KDHS report who own productive land with a title deed compared to men who stand at 22 per cent.

She says greed, illiteracy and poverty fuel most fights over land.

The Kenyan Constitution allows men and women to own and inherit land equally. [iStockphoto]

“My father doesn’t have much land to give me, he empowered me through education to buy my own. The available land I always think should be left to the less fortunate in the family to utilize in farming but not selling,” says Nyadzua.

Caroline Okoth, a lecturer based in Mombasa, says women don’t know what the law says about land ownership.

She says as mothers, there is a value they add to the family whether they buy land or not and ownership of land is for the protection of the children from greedy relatives in the event the parents are absent.

Okoth says most men buy land but it is the women who manage the land.

“Women always have ideas and plans for the future but lack capital and if they own a title deed, they can easily grow themselves economically,” says Okoth.

She also says that most men feel like when a woman owns less or nothing, they can be easily controlled and most women stay in toxic and violent relationships and marriages because they lack financial freedom.

According to Najil, women’s land rights have been articulated in the National Lands Policy passed in 2009 and anchored under the Lands Act which advocates for joint titling that helps women own land through joint ventures.

He says they have been advocating joint titling between a woman and a man instead of doing a will that can easily be contested in court. Najil says women need to change their mindset and fight for their land rights.

“The good thing with women owning land is that they don’t sell. I have never heard of women selling land without a just cause. When they are given land, it is everything to them but men will just sell land to buy a motorbike,” says Najil.

Najil says although Islam advocates that women should have five per cent share of the inheritance property, it is rarely adhered to.

Onchaga says there is need for women paralegals and leaders in Tana River and northern Kenya who can champion women’s land rights.

He says women have failed to advocate the rights of their daughters to own land thus subjecting them to a harsh life.

“Opportunities are lost on women of all ages because they are ignorant of their rights. Even the Women Enterprise Fund has not achieved its purpose,” says Onchaga.