Widows face discrimination in property ownership
17 September 2010
Tanzania Daily News
Dar es Salaam: When Beatrice Thomas, 49, of Mbezi beach, lost her husband seven years ago, that signalled the end of the respect and mutual understanding she enjoyed from his relatives. A year later, as the health began failing her, she underwent an HIV test. The results showed she was HIV positive, the same condition that claimed her husband's life. The news was overwhelming and she shared it with her late husband's sister, a thing she regrets having done. His relatives found ground to claim their matrimonial house. To date, she is engaged in verbal confrontation with them.
"They say because I am HIV positive, I can die any time and are fighting me to get the house," laments the mother of two.
According to last year's Tanzania HIV Indicator Survey, there are 1.3 million people living with HIV countrywide with infection rates among women being higher (6.8 per cent) than men's (4.7 per cent). In 2008, National Assembly passed the HIV (Prevention and control) ACT, providing for prevention, care, treatment and protection of rights of people living with HIV.
However, Tanzania Human Rights Report 2009, compiled by the Legal and Human Rights Centre, suggests that even with the protection guaranteed by the Act, women continue to be marginalized within the context of gender norms. "Women living with HIV face greater stigma and discrimination than men.
It is a commonplace to be accused by their partner's family of bringing HIV into their household," states the report. Mary Micheal, a social worker with PASADA, an organisation that supports people living with HIV, notes that failure to discuss issues pertaining to HIV/ AIDS and death makes it difficult for people living with HIV to secure their property.
"People fear that if they discuss issues concerning death, it will occur," observes Michael.
She cites poverty as the main reason why relatives deprive a widow and her children of their inheritance. "Relatives that grab property assume that the property is theirs because they themselves were economically dependent on the deceased," she says. Currently no law in Tanzania prevents a woman from owning property. Again, no law defends deprivation of owning property by a woman.
Tike Mwambipile, who is head of Research at the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA), says women face stiff opposition from male relatives and in-laws especially in instances when there is no will left by the deceased. "Common practice has it that men own property while women do not because they have been under the latter's care from time immemorial," says Mwambipile.
Mwambipile also points out that the law is divisive. For most communities, save for Muslims, a woman under the law has to provide monetary contribution to succeed in a division of property case. "Regardless of whether she really contributed but does not have documents to show for it or whether she was a homemaker while her husband fended for her and the children," she says.
By last December, TAWLA handled close to 200 probate cases, 130 cases were land related while 59 had to do with wills. TAWLA survey shows that this is because most women do not know how to prove a claim of matrimonial property. Let alone their property rights. Nickson Kimangano, a legal officer at TAWLA, says people living with HIV that seek their legal assistance are helped in writing wills and placing caveats on property to prevent the conflict and trauma that follows death.
"Being HIV positive does not mean that one's rights automatically cease or are denied," affirms Kimangano. Any person owning an interest or rights can place a caveat. A caveat secures property because it prevents another person from selling it without her knowledge or consent. However, due to lack of awareness on property and other rights, most women become victims.
Such that when buying property with her husband, a woman allows him to put it in his name only, even if she has contributed half or the entire amount. Yet no law forbids both a woman and a man having their names registered as joint owners of the said property.
TAWLA have joined hands with PASADA in assisting people living with HIV in planning for their children. PASADA has embarked on community workshops and focus group discussions for adults and children so as to reduce misconceptions and myths surrounding discussions of death and will writing. "We also run training workshops for children on their Human Rights to raise awareness about the issue and to inform them as to where they can seek assistance," says Mary Ash, PASADA's Executive Director.
TAWLA, on the other end co-ordinates the Gender Land Task Force and recently approached the Chief Justice on increasing the capacity of judges taking up probate and succession cases in a bid to ensure that women are wholly represented. The results are that probate cases are concluded and women's legal issues addressed more speedily as more judges are taking up probate cases as opposed to the previous backlog.
As the veil of ignorance is slowly removed, there is a notable improvement in inheritance rights, division of matrimonial property (with proof of contribution) and an increase in placement of caveats, a common feature in matrimonial cases. Tanzania Commission on AIDS (TACAIDS) Secretary, Sam Komba, notes that the National HIV/ AIDS policy is insufficient in shielding the unanticipated strain HIV and AIDS is placing on society.
"There are no clear-cut guidelines as evidenced in gaps of the ever changing science of HIV/AIDS," observes Komba. The policy is under review and is expected to take a human rights approach so as to cushion the devastating effects the epidemic is placing on the social fibre. Seeing that property is a common factor for dispute after death of a husband, women must rise to the occasion because there is no law to stop her doing so.
Neither does being HIV positive make her less entitled to own property. Had Beatrice and her late husband known, they could have secured their house and, surely, she would mourn him with peace of mind.
* Pauline Songiso is a member of Zambia Media Women Association currently working at Tanzania Media Women's Association under the Fredskorpset Exchange Programme.
Keywords: human rights, gender, Tanzania