Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights in Tanzania
In views adopted under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women held the United Republic of Tanzania accountable for multiple violations of women’s rights, particularly as relates to their inheritance and property rights.
Following extensive legal proceedings in Tanzania, this communication was submitted before the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Committee) in 2012. The case concerns the plight of two widows in Tanzania (E.S. and S.C.) who, under Tanzania’s customary inheritance law, were denied the right of inheriting or administering the estates of their late husbands. Thereafter they were, along with their minor children, evicted from their homes by their in-laws. The submission alleged that millions of other women in Tanzania remain governed by discriminatory customary laws, and experience the same violations encountered by the two women in this case.
In its decision the Committee criticized the patrilineal inheritance law (inheritance by persons related through male kin) that left E.S. and S.C. “economically vulnerable, with no property, no home to live in with their children and no form of financial support.” It was noted that such a state of vulnerability has restricted the economic autonomy of the two women preventing them from enjoying equal economic opportunities. The Committee emphasized that women’s equal rights to own, administer and enjoy property is “central to their financial independence and may be critical to their ability to earn a livelihood and to provide adequate housing and nutrition for themselves and for their children, especially in the event of the death of their spouse”.
The Committee held that Tanzania, by condoning legal restraints on inheritance and property rights that discriminate against women, had violated several articles under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), including, among others, provisions pertaining to equality before the law [15 (1), 15 (2)], the right to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit [13 (b)], and the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, management, administration and enjoyment of property [16(1)(h)]. In reaching its conclusion, the Committee also considered a number of its general recommendations, particularly No. 29, which explicitly prohibits disinheritance of the surviving spouse.
The Committee then called on Tanzania to grant E.S. and S.C. appropriate reparation and adequate compensation, commensurate with the seriousness of the violations of their rights. Moreover, the Committee urged Tanzania to repeal or amend its customary laws, including on inheritance, to bring them into full compliance with CEDAW requirements.
Enforcing the Committee recommendations will require concrete steps by Tanzania towards meeting its obligations under CEDAW. In its decision, the Committee explicitly states that in compliance with the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, within six months of receipt of the Committee views and recommendations, Tanzania should submit to the Committee a written response, including information on any action taken in line with the Committee ruling.
Women’s Legal Aid Centre (non-profit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania); International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (Georgetown University Law Center, United States). [Both groups represented the two women in this case]
This decision is a key victory for women’s rights, particularly as pertains to equal inheritance rights. It is significant in this context that various studies reveal that women’s rights to own and inherit property, including land, are vital to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Professor Susan Deller Ross, Director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, one of the groups that represented the applicants, said that the decision is, “is really huge, because it affects millions of women.” If enforced, the ruling will have an important impact in Tanzania. Moreover, the decision will also likely influence developments in other countries where women face similar egregious violations of their rights. It is to be noted that the problems the Tanzanian case addressed are widely prevalent in many parts of Africa and Asia.
The adoption of the Committee views is timely because the Committee will review the compliance of Tanzania with CEDAW in 2016 during its periodic review. The current recommendations of the Committee may be addressed during such periodic review and state (in)action commented on by civil society through the submission of parallel reports, which could provide an added impetus for their effective implementation.