How cultural practices hinder the realisation of women's property rights


Young woman giving top gesture [Courtesy]

Dr Elizabeth Wala was not ready for what awaited her after she divorced her husband, the father of her four children.

She was caught up in a property dispute that she had to fight in court. Worse still, some of her in-laws questioned, out of ignorance, whether her triplet daughters were her husband’s.

It turned out that despite her contributions towards the purchase of various matrimonial properties, her husband was the sole signatory of all of them.

Being the gallant woman she is, she put up a fight in the courts and secured what was rightfully hers. But not without scars, which is a story for another day. 

Dr Wala told The Standard that following her experience she couldn’t help but wonder what happens to women who lack resources and societal support to put up a fight. Women like Ms Romana Akumu.

When Ms Akumu lost her husband last year, all she wanted was solace; especially from those she considered ‘family.’ 

Welcomed warmly

She didn’t know that some of her in-laws, people she had welcomed warmly to her home, would add to the agony that gnawed at her. 

When Ms Akumu refused to be inherited, her brothers-in-law evicted her from the family land and sold it. Land she had faithfully tended to for over ten years when her husband was alive. 

On top of that, some of her in-laws accused her of having a hand in her husband’s death. She was forced to live with her relatives and do odd jobs to make ends meet.

Like Akumu many widows often lose their properties, and have to endure discrimination, poverty and suffering.

Property inheritance is mostly the prerogative of her husband’s male kin.

Social exclusion or assets being taken away makes widows more vulnerable. 

Ms Akumu’s case is just one of the many where women suffer at the hands of ruthless relatives who turn their backs on them in their hour of need.

Ms Linet Nawire from Butsotso North, Kakamega County, should be enjoying her sunset years, but she cannot due to a protracted property dispute in her family. 

Her agony started when her daughter, Rose Nafula, 43, lost her husband in 2014. Soon after, Ms Nafula’s brother-in-law turned against her and was constantly threatening her with death. 

When Ms Nafula had had enough, she gathered her four children and a few belongings and left for her birthplace.

Her mother welcomed her and allocated her a tiny plot to settle on with her children and grow food.

Endured pain

Ms Nafula’s father had died earlier on without leaving a will and she soon became a victim of customary law, which dictates that men are the sole custodians of the land.

Her brothers were unhappy that she had been given land “which rightfully belonged to them” and kicked her out.

With nowhere else to turn to, Ms Nafula went to the local trading centre to rent a single room.

Her brothers went further and warned her against moving back home if she valued her life.

Not one to be deterred easily, Ms Nafula reported her brothers to Butsotso North chief, Mr Wycliffe Kombo, who advocates women’s succession rights.

Mr Kombo’s passion for helping women stems from a personal experience. He watched his mother endure so much pain due to an unreasonable patriarchal system. 

“My father was polygamous. My mother was displaced by constant family wrangles and had to do hard labour and brew chang’aa to get by. She endured so much suffering that I’m determined never to witness another woman go through it if I can help it.”

Mr Kombo has often had to dig into his pockets to help women like Ms Nafula who lack resources to successfully file a succession suit. By the time of this interview, Ms Nafula was confident that the verdict would be in her favour.

“The land will be given to my mother and divided fairly among us. I did not choose to be female. My brothers did not choose to be male either. If fate had it that they were born women, would they handle the matter the way they are handling it now?” she poses.

Ms Nafula has every right to be optimistic. The Kenyan Constitution prohibits such gender-based discrimination. It is discriminatory to exclude female children whatever the circumstances of their birth from sharing in the parents’ estate. Any traditional custom that conflicts with the Constitution is therefore illegal.

Mr Kepha Nyongesa does not think so. “Here, men take it all. They give to their women whatever they deem fit,” he said.

“Fighting for inheritance in their father’s house is just like fighting for a double portion because when a woman gets inheritance from her father’s house, she definitely also gets from her husband’s house,” Mr Nyongesa argued.

In most Kenyan families, property left behind by fathers is divided among male children. In a handful of cases where shares are given to women, they are limited to things owned by their mothers, and they cannot inherit land.

Ms Esther Murugi, a commissioner with the National Land Commission, says that Kenya has the most laws and policies on women’s rights, but implementation is the main challenge. 

Cultural beliefs hinder women from pursuing their rights to land ownership. 

“When people come with claims during alternative dispute resolutions, women are never there. In few cases when they are, they’re shy, and their addresses are through the men -- husbands, brothers, fathers, or even sons. Lack of political goodwill is also another major challenge,” Ms Murugi says.

Disinherited women have the option of going to court, but the legal process is usually expensive and daunting. It can last decades and create family rifts, so most women approach chiefs - who are mostly men to seek reparation, which they rarely get.

“It is hard for change to happen in that setting as long as men dominate such political territories,” said Ms Murugi.

“If there will be change, women must be part of the decision-making.”

Ending women’s disinheritance would require the help of influential chiefs, religious leaders, elders, and fathers who can abandon traditions.

Chief Mike Mulanda from Busia thinks it is not discriminatory to disinherit women. “It is not discriminatory. It is our custom,” he said.

According to him, communal lands are usually only given to male community members.

Mr Kombo is among chiefs and village elders who are actively seeking to end this retrogressive culture.

He called for more women to take leadership positions so they can plead the cases of fellow women.

“Land title deeds are potential sources of capital. Excluding women perpetuates the cycle of economic disadvantage that has existed for centuries,” said Mr Kombo.

Groots Kenya, a local NGO, on March 8 launched the Stand for Her Land Campaign which seeks to sensitise and empower women on their rights to land. The initiative is in partnership with Landesa, World Bank and Habitat for Humanity.

“When women don’t own the land they live and work on, they become trapped in systems that reinforce gender inequalities and restrict their social, economic, and political progress. Through collective action and advocacy, Stand for Her Land is bridging the gap between government commitments and the reality on the ground,” said Esther Mwaura-Muiru, the Global Advocacy Director of Stand for Her Land.