Woman! Shut up on land matters

There is this heartbreaking video which went viral in Tanzania of a woman who wept before President John Pombe Magufuli in public narrating her torturous journey to get justice following her husband’s death.

The Kenyan woman was married in Tanzania but all hell broke loose when her husband died. She was branded an outsider and her property confiscated.

The widow tried unsuccessfully for several years to go to the authorities, including courts, with all documents indicating that her husband gave her the power of attorney to take charge of the family properties.

Marriage certificate

She also had her marriage certificate and all other required papers, but she instead ended up on the receiving end from authorities to her in-laws and step children.

It reminded me of the place of women as far as land rights and property ownership are concerned in Africa.

In most African homes, women still lack land rights, making them really vulnerable. I thought the situation was a bit different for women with some exposure and could at least stand for their rights.

Away from that woman, I had some unhappy experience two weeks ago in Dar es Salaam when local authorities had come to our neighbourhood to solve a boundary dispute pitting two of our neighbours.

A hoarse voice

I was later called and asked if I was the owner of the home where I live. When I responded in the affirmative, it was when I heard a hoarse voice from one of the men who had accompanied these officials! He was like, “You are just a foreigner and a woman so you have no say about this land. The only person authorised to talk about this land is your husband. I doubt if he had even married you by the time he acquired this land!”

My jaw dropped at this point. How sure was he that I was not married and did not participate in acquiring the parcel of land? I remember every time we would go to see the land in the past with my spouse, that guy was always friendly and would fondly refer to me as shemeji (Kiswahili for in-law). But on this day, when it came to land and property, I immediately became an outsider, a foreigner for that matter and a woman who should just shut up!

Offending others

However, I didn’t shut up, I insisted and reasoned with the local government officials who later told the man to avoid offending others. Then in a surprise twist, the government official asked me if I had legal permit to stay in Tanzania.

Well, to cut the long story short, Africa still has a long way when it comes to women having access to land or family property. The only time women will have secure access to land is when our governments come up with laws to contest the social norms and practices that stand in our way.

I know of a few countries like Rwanda and Kenya making headways there, but the efforts were yet to result in equitable outcomes for women and men.

Family property

The land question is a historical problem in Africa since the pre-colonial days. It was always the male members of the clans who exercised control on land use. And it was only sons who inherited land as women were regarded as distant claimants through male relatives even after being divorce or widowed.

The male members of the family would gang up and take over the family property and either kill the woman or send her and her children away. Sadly enough, the practice was still rife in many regions of Africa.

In some communities, old women who still owned some land were usually accused of practising witchcraft and killed, then their lands invaded.

Denied access

Even land titling has not helped women much as it is mainly men who were considered to be household heads who get their names on these documents.

While women worked hard to make ends meet for their families, land was definitely out of their control. Though we were making headways with progressive policies, we still need to raise awareness and carry out legal literacy about women's land rights.

Our governments need to encourage women who have been denied access to land to come out and file claims and help them secure access to legal redress. Land ownership gives woman some social status and dignity.

Twitter:@JanetOtieno
Email: kikijanty@gmail.com

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