Monday, January 28, 2008

To Have and To Hold: Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights in the Context of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa

International Center for Research on Women

Information Brief (June 2004)

In 2004, UNAIDS launched the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS to call more global attention to HIV/AIDS-related abuses of women’s and girls’ rights and to promote action to counter abuses. The Global Coalition focuses on preventing new HIV infections among women and girls, promoting equal access to HIV care and treatment, accelerating microbicides research, protecting women’s property and inheritance rights, and reducing violence against women. For each issue, the Global Coalition works through a convening agency to raise awareness and promote action. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is the convening agency for the realization of women’s and girls’ property and inheritance rights. This bulletin is based on research, undertaken for ICRW by Dr. Richard Strickland, examining the linkages between women’s property rights and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research and intervention strategies are just beginning to consider the role that women’s property ownership and inheritance rights might play in potentially breaking the cycle of HIV/AIDS and poverty. There is growing evidence to suggest that where women’s property and inheritance rights are upheld, women acting as heads and/or primary caregivers of HIV/AIDS-affected households are better able to manage the impact of AIDS. Additionally, preliminary evidence indicates that such rights may help prevent further spread of HIV/AIDS by promoting women’s economic security and empowerment, thereby reducing their vulnerability to domestic violence, unsafe sex, and other AIDS-related risk factors.

Obstacles to Women’s Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, women are adversely affected by acute discrimination in matters of property and inheritance, and they suffer disproportionately from the effects of discriminatory and oppressive laws, customs, and traditions regarding access to and control of housing and land (COHRE 2003). This can be attributed to a range of legal, institutional, and socio-economic factors (UN-HABITAT 2002; Walker 2002; Human Rights Watch 2003b).

Legal issues may include patriarchal laws and traditions that, in effect, deny women the ability to own and inherit land. Additionally, the relationship between traditional or customary law and statutory or de jure law may allow for gaps in implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of those laws that do recognize women’s equal rights to tenure. These gaps may be exacerbated by women’s lack of awareness of their rights.

Institutional factors such as cumbersome regulatory frameworks, costly procedures, lack of information, and corruption can undermine women’s ability to claim their rights, especially where women are underrepresented in structures of local and national governance and their needs and perspectives are inadequately incorporated into policies and programs.

Socio-economic factors affecting women’s secure tenure include poverty, urbanization, domestic violence, and natural and human-made disasters. As many as 41 percent of female-headed households live below local poverty levels and lack resources to buy land or property or develop land allocated to them (UN-HABITAT 2002). Women lacking rights to rural land may migrate to urban areas in hopes of securing property there, though often with tenuous results. Violence against women is sometimes used to threaten their eviction during family disputes or to break their claim to family property upon the death of the spouse (associated with the phenomenon of property grabbing). Further complicating the picture, a variety of tenure systems, legally or customarily defined, establish how property rights and the associated responsibilities and restraints concerning property are to be distributed within societies.

...The Importance of Property Rights

Throughout the world, ownership of land, housing, and other property provides direct and indirect benefits including a secure place to live, the means to a livelihood, and a measure of wealth or capital by which additional economic resources can be leveraged (land can serve as collateral for credit, for instance). Land has long been recognized as a primary source of wealth, social status, and power, providing the basis for shelter, food, and economic activities. Access to resources such as water and to services such as sanitation and electricity, as well as the ability to make long-term investments in land and housing, are often conditioned by access to land rights (FAO 2002).

... HIV/AIDS-affected households that enjoy rights to land and property are better-positioned to cope, as they have a stable, secure environment in which to provide care as well as a resource base that can generate much needed income to help compensate for lost wages of an ill person or a caregiver who forgoes a wage-earning job, and to cover various AIDS-related costs.

Unfortunately, the benefits of land ownership that can help mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS often are simply not available to women in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, title deeds to land or house are normally issued to male heads of household, leaving women with a lack of secure tenure in case of divorce from or death of their husband. This may lead them to endure an abusive relationship or infidelity to safeguard their access to property through their husband, rather than seeking a divorce. Efforts to promote joint titling are underway in many countries, though the practical effects of the joint title have yet to be thoroughly tested or assessed.

If widowed, women may be victimized by others (such as in-laws and their relatives) through manipulative decision-making that denies rightful inheritance. They may be forced to forfeit their assets, including their land and house, to relatives of the deceased spouse through customary practices involving property grabbing or asset stripping. Such practices, fueled increasingly by the stigma and discrimination commonly experienced by survivors of AIDS victims, leave affected households destitute and more vulnerable to further consequences of HIV/AIDS (Drimie 2002a; FAO 2003; Human Rights Watch

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