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Despite laws, many women still struggle for inheritance rights.
April 12, 2017

When Tanzanian lawyer Heri Emmanuel saw how his co-worker’s brothers and widowed mother were deprived of their inheritance rights, he took up the fight to defend them in court and help them win their fair share. It made him decide to to establish an NGO that would primarily focus on defending women’s and orphans’ rights to inheritance.

Traditionally, when a Tanzanian man dies, his property is either inherited by his adult sons or, if his children are minors, it is repossessed by his family. Women have been completely excluded from the process.

“Most of the traditions do not consider females as human beings entitled to equal treatment with males, and this is the case on all spheres of life, be it socially, economically and politically. Thus, the same saga takes the same course when it comes to inheritance rights as far as women are concerned,” Emmanuel said.

But Tanzania and most other African countries that have signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have laws that clearly state the rights of women and minors to receive an inheritance. The challenge now is enforcement, he said, and overcoming years of discrimination by making everyone aware of their rights.

In neighboring Uganda, “many legal inroads have been made in as far as challenging repugnant customs are concerned. But the rural woman who bears the real brunt of culture cannot afford the services of a lawyer and in most cases suffers in silence,” said lawyer Henry Wesaka Kuloba, who also defends women and minors in inheritance cases. Uganda has also passed laws meant to guarantee women’s rights to an inheritance, but “the customary practices are so deeply entrenched, so much so that allegiance to customs overrides adherence to the law.”

In addition, he said, many women are in cohabitational relationships that the law does not recognize as a legal marriage. “Because men have become aware that marital status entitles women to inheritance rights, most of them have declined to contract customary marriages,” Kuloba said.

Man standing at table with two people seated (Courtesy of Heri Emmanuel)
Mandela Washington Fellow Heri Emmanuel instructs Tanzanian community members on inheritance rights. (Courtesy photo)

Both Kuloba and Emmanuel are working to provide needy and disadvantaged people with affordable professional legal service, and dispelling the myths that are keeping women from exercising their new rights as legal heirs.

When women are dispossessed, social ramifications include an increased number of vulnerable children and women being forced to beg or join the sex trade. Emmanuel said two major barriers to change are women who don’t feel they are entitled to inherit, and a reluctance on the part of many to write a will.

“There is a myth, I think all over Africa, that if you write a will, you are calling for your death! Silly! But the truth is, whether you write a will or not, death is certain, that you must die!” Emmanuel wrote in an email. He has written a book to help explain issues of probate and estate planning to those who are unfamiliar with how to protect the rights of their survivors, and he has successfully helped more than 5,000 people to write a will.

Emmanuel said women have also lost their inheritance because in their unfamiliarity with their rights, they delayed taking their case to court until it was too late.

“A widow might have a very good case, and she is actually entitled to the inheritance, but her claim is barred by the statute of limitation,” he said.

As a YALI Network member, Emmanuel, who was a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow, said you can help play a role by making sure women in your community are aware of their inheritance rights, what documentation they need and where to find help to claim those rights. “They say when you educate a woman, you educate the whole society,” he said.

Kuloba, also a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow, added that “members of the YALI Network can be of great impact in this regard. Inheritance and succession to property comes as a result of death and hence everyone is affected.”

Be sure to take the #Africa4Her quiz and tell us how you will be bold for change to make a difference in the lives of women and girls in your community. Then tell us about what you have done and follow the hashtag #Africa4Her to see what others are saying. Learn more at https://yali.state.gov/4her/.