DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Elizabeth Paul remembers the suffering she went through when her father-in-law kicked her out of her matrimonial home after her husband’s death two years ago.
“I was so helpless, I couldn’t resist and the anguish of losing my husband was so overwhelming,” she recalled.
The 42-year-old resident of Majengo in the Dodoma region had been married for over a decade and said her father in-law accused her of being responsible for the death of his son.
“He was very angry with me. He did not even talk about the future of my children,” she said.
Paul said her brothers-in-law had been embroiled in a family feud as they jostled to grab properties that had belonged to her deceased husband, including a farm, livestock and a house.
Paul, who has since moved to Dar es Salaam, received some hope last year after a friend advised her to take legal action with the help from Women Wake Up, a Tanzania-based nonprofit organisation.
“I am very poor. I cannot meet legal costs. I hope they will help me recover some of my assets,” she said.
Among its projects, Women Wake Up strives to help women, particularly widows, understand property ownership rights. “Our aim is to help people find justice. We target women and children because they are most vulnerable,” said Burton Mwidowe, a trainer at the organisation.
Paul's story illustrates the plight of many widows in Tanzania whose ability to support themselves and their children are threatened by property and land grabbing.
Women's property rights are stipulated in the Tanzanian constitution which establishes the equality of all persons.
Article 24(1) states that “every person is entitled to own a property." It adds "… any deprivation of a person’s property is unlawful unless declared by the law which makes provision for fair and adequate compensation"
Women's land rights are also laid out in the Land Act and the Village Land Act of 1999, which state that,“ The right of every woman to acquire, hold, use and deal with land, to the same extent and subject to the same restrictions be treated as a right of any man"
Section 159(1) (8) of the Land Act states, "… where the land as a whole is occupied jointly under a right of occupancy, no occupier is entitled to any separate share in land, not even a transfer to an outsider unless there is a consent between the two occupiers"
Despite these laws, their implementation remains elusive for many women.
Nyambona Mawalla, a 33-year-old widow from Mvumi village in Dodoma, recently was denied a share of her late husband’s assets because she refused to be inherited by a brother in-law in line with Gogo tribal tradition.
“I reported the matter to a local ward office but I was told to sit with elders to resolve the matter as a family since I was married under customary arrangement," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A 2010 study, “Widowhood and Vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and Related Shocks”, conducted by Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA), showed that land and property grabbing from widows is still widespread in Tanzania.
According to the study about half of the widows interviewed said in-laws and other relatives barred them from inheriting their husbands’ property.
The study concluded that the economic value of the property and cultural norms were the main factors behind land and property grabbing.
Researchers who interviewed 236 widows in the Iringa region found that the tendency of in-laws to grab productive assets, including land and livestock, was high.
"The refusal of widows to accept the levirate system was another major factor for property grabbing and the abandonment of widows and their children," according to the study. Under the levirate system of marriage, the brother and widow of a deceased man are obliged to marry.
The majority of widows in the study believed that their vulnerability to property grabbing was not directly linked with the cause of their husband's death--whether HIV/AIDS related or not-- but just the death itself.
According to the study most people interviewed attributed every death to witchcraft. “This widespread belief in witchcraft is fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS, as clearly evidenced by the cases of remarriages and cohabiting,” it said.
The study shows that most cases of widows’ harassment were caused by their refusal to be inherited by one of the husband's male relatives, and their appeal for legal action after the in-laws had shown intention to seize the deceased man’s property.
“Most women have access to land through their spouses but do not own (it) on their own. In many instances widows and divorced women are being harassed by male relatives,” said Yefred Myenzi, a researcher with HAKIARDHI, a Tanzanian land rights research and resource institute.
Myenzi said that because customary marriages are not registered most women lose everything upon divorce or death of their spouses.