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BIOGRAPHY – The Extended Version cont.

Africa's Homeless Widows

June 16, 2004

Women feed Africa. They grow 80 percent of the continent's food, yet the land they cultivate is not theirs. Women own only 1 percent of the land in sub-Saharan Africa. Tradition says that when a man dies, his property passes to his adult sons or brothers. The widow and her children are often
evicted and left destitute.

These inheritance customs have long taken land away from those who cultivated it and helped to impoverish the most vulnerable women and children. But AIDS now magnifies the harm. Since men are dying younger, they often leave no sons old enough to inherit their property and thus save the family from homelessness - so more widows are evicted. In some countries, discrimination is in the law. In Swaziland, for example, women are lifelong legal minors and cannot own property. Many countries place barriers to women's inheritance of property. But even in places like
Ghana and Zambia, where the formal law protects women to some degree, the dispossession of widows is widespread. Changing laws, then, is only one step in fighting the practice.

Traditionally, women lack rights but are supposed to be protected by their fathers, and then by their husbands. And brothers who inherit a dead man's property are supposed to assume responsibility for his widow and orphans. But increased desperation, fueled largely by AIDS, has made a
great number of families disregard this obligation. Instead, brothers often violently evict the widow. Sometimes a widow returns from a mourning ceremony to find someone else's lock on her door. Reforming inheritance practices has been a focus of the women's rights movement in Africa since it began about 20 years ago. Campaigners have been able to change some legal codes, but such changes have brought little help. Laws often specifically exempt family matters or do not apply to marriages outside the formal legal system, which is most of them. National laws are rarely known, let alone enforced, in rural Africa. A desperate widow is unlikely to challenge her husband's relatives, who may remain her only hope for

Helping widows requires more than rewriting legal codes. Educational programs are necessary to encourage men to question the commonly held belief that if women are allowed to inherit property, wives will be enticed to kill their husbands. Women's groups have had some success working with tribal chiefs and training mediators; they have founded groups of village women who counsel new widows on ways to protect their homes and guard their belongings while mourning. Governments have left the task of village-level education to women's organizations, but these lack
resources. It should be a government's job not only to improve its laws, but also to ensure that they are upheld.

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