- Due to customary laws, thousands of AIDS widows throughout Africa are denied an inheritance, which leaves them homeless and destitute. Today, on Women's Day, a coalition of women's groups urges the African Commission on Human Rights to urgently address the growing problem.
- On International Women's Day, we call upon the Commission to focus on an important issue that is constantly overlooked, says Birte Scholz, from the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). This issue, Ms Scholz says, is "the denial of inheritance to thousands of widows throughout Africa, which leaves them homeless, destitute, violates their human rights and adds to the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region."
The women's group coalition, in which COHRE participates, today is urging the African Commission on Human Rights to urgently review customary laws in several African countries "that deny women from inheriting property, endanger their socio-economic security and thereby contributes to the spread of AIDS."
COHRE has recently conducted a study on the issue of inheritance rights of women in sub-Saharan Africa, Ms Scholz today told afrol News. The group was alarmed by the results of the study and convened a conference on this issue with numerous activists working for women's rights in the region.
At the conference, which was held earlier this year, prominent women's right activists gathered from various sub-Saharan African countries to discuss the cases of women's rights violations they deal with everyday. Their discussions made clear that the staggering rate of HIV/AIDS in the African continent has led to a rapid increase in the number of widows.
- Often infected with the virus themselves, these widows are further burdened with heavy workloads, often caring for children orphaned from AIDS, besides their own, COHRE says in a press release today.
Unprotected by laws, these widows often become victims of property grabbing and eviction when their husbands pass away. In-laws and other relatives use discriminatory customary practices as the basis to deny women's right to inheritance, and sometimes violently throw these women out of their marital homes.
Left with nothing, these widows become homeless and destitute, and are often forced turn to prostitution to earn a meagre living for themselves and the children in their care, according to the women's groups. This further adds to the spread of HIV.
- The inability of women to inherit property has greatly affected the socio-economic well-being of widowed women in the region, at a time when female-headed households are on the increase due to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, says Ms Scholz. "This has many far-reaching implications such as promoting the spread of AIDS," she adds.
Even though African women produce up to 80 percent of all the food in the region, in many traditional societies, they don't own or inherit the land they cultivate on or the houses in which they raise their families, due to discriminatory laws and practices that give power and ownership of marital housing to husbands and male relatives.
According to the women's groups, African governments generally do not provide enough protection to ensure that women are able to realise their rights to housing and land. "Women, as a result, lack economic security, and are vulnerable to violence in the home, exploitation and HIV/AIDS," the groups had found.
Now, however, activists want a change of the customary laws throughout the continent. The so-called Inheritance Rights Network, consisting of local, national and international women's rights activists, legal experts and groups, in a letter to the African Commission, now calls for "an immediate review of such discriminatory laws," which they say "lead to the eviction of thousands of women from their homes and lands."
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