One day, while working with rural populations in Kenya, my colleagues and I came upon a small hut situated next to an equally small unfinished cement structure. The next moment, a frail woman named Nakiganda* welcomed us into her hut and told us her story.
Nakiganda’s late husband had engaged in extra-marital affairs, leading him to contract HIV and eventually spread the virus to Nakiganda. Soon after learning of his HIV-positive status, Nakiganda’s husband died of a fatal heart attack.
Together, Nakiganda and her late husband had lived harmoniously on acres of fertile property. Pointing to the unfinished structure, she reminisced about their efforts to build a second home – happier times.
While Nakiganda was still newly widowed, her late husband’s family claimed ownership of her land, including that of her work-in-progress second home. Now unable to consume and/or sell her own crops, Nakiganda lacked access to the proper nutrition to effectively fight her disease and an adequate income to buy antiretrovirals for her HIV. As a result, she accepted as fact her inevitable, fast-approaching death.
Sadly, Nakiganda is not alone in her struggle to cope with the devastating consequences that result from the combined effects of lack of access to equal land rights and widowhood.
A 2007 study demonstrated that, within one to three years after a husband’s death, widow-headed households in Zambia controlled an average of 35 percent less land than they had prior to their husband’s death.
In Uganda, a 1904 inheritance law provides only 15 percent of a man’s estate to his widow and gives the remaining to the deceased’s sons or brothers. As a result, in addition to losing a husband, widows often lose an entire way of life.
“I do not like women who pollute our women emancipation movement by introducing elements of mercenerism [sic] in marriages. Cooking and cleaning shouldn’t entitle them to marital property.” – President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda in a March 2013 statement to party lawmakers.
What Museveni does not realize is that women will never be fully emancipated without equal property rights. Should women ever become widows, equal access to land rights serves as a type of social security net, ensuring that women enjoy a higher likelihood of food security, adequate nutrition, and the potential to earn an income throughout their lives.
Women in Sub-Saharan Africa serve as the continent’s agricultural backbone, accounting for 70 percent of food production (i.e. storage, transport, hoeing, weeding). However, women only account for less than 15 percent of landholders, a figure that screams of the injustices faced not only by widows, but all women.
Although the fight for widows’ rights has recently gained momentum as a result of both the United Nations’ adoption of International Widows’ Day and U.N. Women’s recent partnership with the Loomba Foundation, global attention toward widows pales in comparison to other women’s issues, as evidenced by the failure to mention widows in the Millennium Development Goals.
In the Post-2015 Agenda, the world must promote and protect equal land rights for women to ensure stories like Nakiganda’s cease to exist.
*Not her real name