In Mufindi, where widows struggle to get land rights

By Beatrice Philemon , The Guardian
Published at 06:00 AM Jun 25 2024
One of the profound problems is lack of or inadequate land ownership.
Photo: Agencies
One of the profound problems is lack of or inadequate land ownership.

WIDOWS all over Africa are facing lots of problems in societies due to male power traditional norms.

One of the profound problems is lack of or inadequate land ownership. 

The intersection of widowhood, land rights, and male dominance in Africa significantly impacts the socio-economic well-being and empowerment of widows. Hence denying widows the right to access, and to inherit land and property through patriarchal customs is inimical to the promotion of gender equality and human dignity. It’s against human rights and the Africa We Want and has been identified as a key problem in Africa.

Landesa Outreach Director-Africa Dr Monica Magoke-Mhoja explained that widows in Tanzania often encounter severe inequality when it comes to land ownership.

Imelda Kalinga (pictured) is living in Ikongosi Juu village in Mufindi District in Iringa Region and she is one among of the widows that have been helped by landesa programmes. Her husband’s death left her solely responsible for their three children; to meet their needs, she depended on the small piece of land she and her husband farmed together.

Her father-in-law was a good person and supported her to remain utilising the farm. But alas, just days after her father-in-law’s funeral, brothers-in-law started harassing and evicting her from the farm claiming it belonged to her husband’s family.  She was devastated with sleepless nights and lost hope.

Dr Magoke-Mhoja said that Imelda’s story is all too common in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. She was more fortunate than most widows who never enjoy rights to matrimonial land upon spouses’ deaths. Her story illustrates how land titling benefited her, giving her legal power over her land. Actually, land use planning has helped several widows in Mufindi secure legal rights to properties they inherited.

“This was conducted through land use planning with climate change and gender lens (integrating gender equality and social inclusion) through Landesa in collaboration with the Government -Mufindi District Council and PELUM,” said Dr Magoke-Mhoja

Without changing community mind-sets, Landesa understands that in some land use planning operations, men could get their names on the documents because they are deemed as heads of households. In the end, widows would even be fortunate if they got the smallest lots. However, with a gender transformative approach, change of mind-set has occurred among communities.

“At this juncture, it’s vital to mention that researchers narrate that women in Africa account for nearly half of all farm labour and are regularly responsible for household food production and preparation. Women fill a vital role in both agriculture and in household food production. Yet, women, widows included, often lack rights to land,” she said.

Dr Magoke-Mhoja further explained that the exclusion of widows from land ownership and power has profoundly far-reaching effects on various aspects of their lives. Without land ownership, Africa’s widows lose critical sources of income, especially in agrarian societies where land is the primary means of livelihood. Furthermore, widows becoming economically dependent on male relatives or community support, reducing their financial autonomy.

Since land is used as collateral for loans but widows lack land ownership, they naturally become limited to accessing credit, and this in turn hinders their ability to invest in businesses or to improve their living conditions, further narrowing their economic opportunities and entrepreneurial potential.

Dr Magoke-Mhoja said that the loss of land and economic insecurity can lead to significant psychological stress, anxiety, and depression among widows. Social exclusion and marginalization can exacerbate mental health issues, leading to feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

Further, the economic impact of land exclusion can limit widows' ability to afford education for their children, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. Such exclusion reinforces patriarchal norms and gender inequality, perpetuating discrimination against women. Moreover, such exclusion effects can be passed down to future generations, as children of widows may also face economic and social disadvantages.

 “Imelda had neither legal knowledge nor resources to challenge discriminatory practices to claim her legal rights. Fortunately, Imelda was part of the Village Council and participated in the land use planning training conducted by Landesa, where she learned about her rights to land,” said.

As the Landesa Outreach Director has travelled within Africa and evidenced how widows are benefitted from Land Use Planning or Land formalization, below are some of the case studies:

Sulesa Yohana is a widow of 4 children in Mufindi, she lived happily with her husband, but when her husband died she said “My in laws pressured me to vacate the land. I was stressed and very sad, I couldn’t focus”. She had significant psychological stress and anxiety

In her explanation Sulesa said “It was within that time Landesa with the Mufindi Council people came with education on land rights and the land use planning process, helped the me to get a customary land certificate in my name and my 4 children’s name. I gained my joy and happiness even to focus on my shamba work. I have confidence that I have legal rights to land and inheritance for my children”.

After receiving her certificate, she feels more comfortable and relaxed no more psychological stress.

Another studies case is that an elderly widow a resident of Nundwe Village in Mufindi District who had 4 sons, all four sons died, and she was left with 4 daughters-in-law and a number of grandchildren. She was harassed by her late-husband relatives not to give the land to widows as they can be re-married. For her the backbiting against her daughters in law gave her sleepless nights. 

After receiving the Customary Certificate of Occupancy providing details of her land ownership and all her daughters-in-laws and grand-children, she exclaimed, “this paper document is very important to me, my land is now secure against encroachment or eviction”

She said further, “even if I die today, I am confident that, people will respect this paper which proves the land is mine. And my daughters are safe now.”

Shifting from Tanzania, another case study is in Liberia in which Landesa also carried out land formalization in Ma Nusiah’s case, the intervention of Landesa-Liberia under the Customary Land Rights and Talking Book programs played a crucial role in restoring her rights to her husband’s land. These programs, through a series of land meetings and awareness messages, helped to educate the head of Ma Nusiah’s late husband’s family and other men in their town about women’s land rights. This led to the family realizing that it was Ma and her children’s right to inherit her husband’s land, and they returned the land to them. 

Another case which also took place on Liberia is Madam Sarah L. Kollie's Case. A 58-year-old widow from Foequelleh Town, Panta Clan, Panta District in Bong County, and her five children were denied access to their land, which had palm and rubber farms, after her husband’s death.

Despite her pleas, her husband’s family went on with their denial. Fortunately, Foequelleh Town was a beneficiary of the Talking Book (TB) and Customary Land Formalization projects. Sarah, along with some members of her husband’s family, participated in these programs. The land rights messages about women’s rights to land by marriage and inheritance brought great relief to Sarah and her children.

After attending to these programs, her late husband’s family realized their mistakes and returned the land to Sarah and her children which till today is under their ownership and control.

 Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want

 Upholding the rights of widows is critical to implementing the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and creating “The Africa We Want.” Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063 strives to achieve people-driven development in Africa and to strengthen the role of Africa’s women through gender equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. Imelda’s story is a measure of progress in the effort to empower women and unlock their potential.

Landesa efforts in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa support Aspiration 1 (A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development); Aspiration 3 (Good Governance) and Aspiration 6 (An Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of women and youth). This work illustrates a strong commitment to advancing land rights, promoting gender equality, and fostering sustainable development in relation with the goals of Agenda 2063.

Dr Magoke-Mhoja recommends that Tanzania inheritance laws are in urgent need to have reform for both customary and Islamic law, the two predominant systems of intestate succession in Tanzania.

Overall, changing institutions is vital; the basic rights of widows should be entrenched in Africa countries constitutions and for equal rights of property ownership to be clearly stipulated in the law. Where this has been done it’s necessary to bring all inheritance and land laws into harmony with the Constitution. Additionally, legal institutions responsible for implementing the land and inheritance laws need to operate fairly and equitably.