By Kizito Makoye Shigela
MUFINDI, Tanzania (ACP-IDN) – At Kiyowela village in Tanzania’s southern highlands, every widow has a story to tell about how community volunteers have helped them solve property disputes with their relatives.
Zaituni Lekiza still remembers the suffering she went through when her father-in-law kicked her out of her matrimonial home after her husband died two years ago. “He asked me to leave because I no longer belonged to the family,” she told IDN.
The 39-year-old mother of two, who lives in Mufindi district, had been married for eight years but was thrown out of her home after her father-in-law accused her of being behind the death of his son.
“My husband got ill and died, but everybody in the family was blaming me,” she said, adding that her brothers-in-law had also been embroiled in a dispute as they jostled to seize her late husband’s farmland.
However, she began to see a glimmer of hope a year ago when community volunteers working for Hakiardhi – a Dar es Salaam-based land rights resources institute – helped her go through the legal process to regain her matrimonial property which was on the verge of being seized.
“We went to a district court, and the magistrate ruled in my favour,” she explained. “My father in law was ordered to return everything to me ... I am very happy now because my children have a place to live and we have a much brighter future.”
Her story paints a picture of the plight of widows across Africa, who are increasingly humiliated and denied the right to inherit matrimonial properties on divorce or the death of their spouse.
Although Tanzanian law guarantees equal rights to land, activists say customary norms continue to limit rural women’s ownership and control of land.
In an effort to raise awareness of land justice, Hakiardhi has trained a 600-strong network of volunteers known as Land Rights Monitors (LRMs) who work in 300 villages to help local residents, including widows, secure their legal rights in land disputes
The monitors, who are recognised by the local authorities, work as the bridge between the organisation and the village to provide legal advice to the village government and other institutions such as the village land council on land administration issues.
Lack of awareness about laws, poor governance of village land and lack of monitoring and reporting of land rights violations are some of the factors that undermine the rights of marginalised groups, especially widows, to inherit property, said Cathbert Thomitho, a senior researcher with Hakiardhi.
Although available statistics show that women in Africa contribute 70 percent of food production while accounting for nearly half of all farm labour and 80-90 percent of food processing, storage and transport, experts say very few of them own land in their own right.
Across Africa, widows heading families tend to be denied or assigned weaker land rights due to customary norms and a biased system that pushes them to the edge of survival.
The Hakiardhi initiative, which started in 2012, involves volunteers who are democratically elected among villagers and trained to provide legal advice on land issues.
“We train them so that they can be the agents of change working towards greater accountability and transparency on land matters at the village level,” said Thomitho.
Among others, the LRMs have proved adept in providing legal aid to widows by presiding over conflicts concerning matrimonial properties soon after the death of their spouses.
“My house would have been taken had they not intervened. I would now be leading a miserable life,” Lekiza said.
While women's property rights are stipulated in Tanzania's constitution, the majority of them in impoverished districts like Mufindi still struggle to own land, according to activists.
They note that customary norms have made it hard for women to obtain land in their own right. Instead, many access it through their spouses or male relatives and they often end up losing it if those men die.
“Men only respect you when your husband is alive,” Lekiza told IDN. “When he dies everybody is against you.”
Godfrey Massay, an expert on land investment with the Arusha-based Tanzania Natural Resource Forum who previously worked with Hakiardhi, said training volunteers to help their communities defend their land rights has proved to be an effective approach for promoting land justice in the east African nation.
“Successful interventions to assist villagers, particularly women, suggest that this approach holds considerable potential and replicability,” he said.
According to Lekiza, the LRMs helped her to understand the legal provisions that explain her rights as a widow to inherit the property, while guiding her through judicial procedures to secure them.
In an interview with IDN, Asia Kikoti, an LRM from Lukolongo village, said she has managed to resolve many land-related disputes out of court. “A lot of women call me whenever they have a dispute to resolve, I often advise them to solve their problems out to the court to avoid a time-consuming judicial process.”
Similar initiatives are being implemented in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda to help marginalised groups access their land rights.
In Kenya, the Kenya Law Resource Centre has been in the forefront of providing legal aid to widows in Nyanza region whenever they encounter property grabbing, helping them settle disputes with male members of the family to retain access to land and property
In Uganda, the Uganda Land Alliance has been working to secure women's land rights through responsive and responsible governance of tenure. The organisation has mediated for women in cases where their attempts to control, transact and own land have been resisted and sanctioned by the community and the clan. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 January 2017]
Photo: Zaituni Lekiza whom community volunteers working for Hakiardhi – a Dar es Salaam-based land rights resources institute – helped go through the legal process to regain her matrimonial property which was on the verge of being seized. Credit: Kizito Makoye Shigela | IDN-INPS