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African women must know and claim their inheritance rights

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 4 Mar 2011 09:29 AM
Author: George Esunge Fominyen
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DAKAR (TrustLaw) - African women must become more interested and involved in their husbands’ and fathers' financial activities to protect the inheritance and property rights key to female economic empowerment, according to a leading Nigerian women’s rights activist. 

Josephine Nzerem, who is head of Human Angle, a non-governmental organisation that has been executing projects aimed at building the capacity of women to resist forced disinheritance, said most patriarchal practices and norms that deny women’s right to property are hinged on women’s ignorance.

 “When it is your brother-in-law who knows everything, who knows all the property, knows all the bank accounts then you (the wife) are already disinherited,” Nzerem told TrustLaw in Dakar.

 “But if the woman knows about her husband's business and is involved in it, she knows where the files are, she knows where the documents are, she can’t be disinherited,” she said. 

 In Nigeria, as in many African countries, there is recognition of both traditional rules of land ownership and inheritance of property and Western-type statutory laws. However, long-established traditional practices, where typically only sons or male relatives (in case there are no sons) inherit property, still hold sway in many communities.

 This is particularly true when women marry under customary law instead of statutory law and thus are compelled to follow the dictates of cultural traditions.

 Several organisations in sub-Saharan Africa are involved in education campaigns encouraging  girls and women to marry under statutory law, which in most countries protects their right to property.

 But Nzerem, who has been working on widows’ inheritance rights since 1998, argues that these education campaigns should not focus only on the type of law under which marriages are contracted but also on the protection such laws give women.

“Even if the woman is married under the act (statutory law) and she does not know the protection it gives her, she would still be disinherited because the men would act on her ignorance to disinherit her,” she said.

 “That’s why we (Human Angle) empower women to know the laws that they are married under, to know the protective shield it gives them, so in case of death they can stand up and say, ‘Hey, I am a common-law wife and I have a right to inherit,’” Nzerem said.

 The social justice activist, who is considered a leader on women’s issues in her country, believes that very little progress can be achieved without involving men in the protection of women’s and girls’ rights.

 One of her organisation’s early successes was a project on using wills for the prevention of violence against women.  The programme, supported by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) under the Nigeria Governance fund, encouraged large numbers of men to write wills to protect their families from disinheritance.

The success of the project, which included sessions on how to put together quick home-made wills, also was aided by support from the World Bank through that institution’s small grants scheme.

 Nzerem has shared her strategies to protect women’s property and inheritance rights in several West African countries with the firm belief that this is a priority for obtaining women’s economic empowerment on the African continent.

 “We want women to know these issues and not to keep quiet and not talk,” she said.

 “We are fixing that in Human Angle by teaching men how to write their wills in order to protect their women and their girls and also we are teaching the women to be economically empowered and also to be involved in their husbands business because ignorance leads to disinheritance,” Nzerem said.

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