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Bringing equality home: Promoting and protecting the inheritance rights of women
Scholz, B; Gomez, M, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)

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Executive summary
For over a decade, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has been campaigning to realise the human right to adequate housing for everyone, everywhere. Through our advocacy efforts, we have come to recognise that taking a gender-neutral approach to housing and housing rights does not always ensure that women’s speci. c needs, concerns and rights with respect to housing are properly understood, addressed and championed. COHRE has therefore adopted a gender perspective in its housing rights work, taking into account that the impacts of housing rights violations experienced by women are often quite different and more severe than those experienced by men.

Women’s human rights to land and adequate housing are systematically denied — the majority of the well over one billion inadequately housed persons in the world are women. Yet the most blatant gender-speci. c violation of such rights is the denial of women’s rights to own and inherit housing, land and property. Women throughout the world, after the death of a husband or father, are denied these basic rights and deprived of their homes and lands. The effects are devastating: destitution and homelessness, increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection, physical violence, and other grave violations of women’s fundamental human rights.

In this report, the COHRE Women and Housing Rights Programme (WHRP) documents the tragic reality that, under both statutory and customary law, the overwhelming majority of women in sub-Saharan Africa – regardless of their marital status – cannot own or inherit land, housing and other property in their own right. Instead, in respect of access to land and housing, women are made entirely dependant on their relationship to a male.

As this report demonstrates, issues of women’s inheritance extend far beyond the crucial challenge of establishing the necessary legal frameworks that would allow women to own and inherit property. For in almost all ten sub-Saharan countries examined, the fact that women generally cannot rent, lease, own or inherit land and housing is not just the result of gender-biased statutory law; it is also due to discriminatory customary laws and traditions, as well as social norms and attitudes.

In all the cases addressed in this report, women’s lack of security in the housing sphere stems from entrenched systems of gender discrimination, whether these systems be legal or normative, or a combination thereof. These discriminatory customary laws, traditions and cultural norms only serve to intensify and make more widespread the housing and inheritance rights abuses that are currently being faced by many millions of women in the region.

Inheritance rights are human rights. Under the major international human rights instruments that these sub-Saharan States have rati. ed, they have clear obligations to respect, protect and full such rights.

Potential solutions to the problem of discrimination against women in the housing and inheritance spheres fall into two main categories:

1. Administrative and legal reforms – States should design and revise laws to ensure that women are accorded full and equal rights to adequate housing, and to own land, housing and other property, by means including the upholding and protection of inheritance rights. States should also undertake administrative reforms and other necessary measures to give women the same rights as men to credit, capital and appropriate technologies, as well as access to markets and information.

2. Active engagement for positive change – States should actively engage in the transformation of customs and traditions that discriminate against women and deny them security of tenure and equal ownership of, access to and control over land, as well as equal rights to adequate housing and to own housing and other property. In addition, States should ensure the right of women to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform, in land-resettlement schemes, and in ownership of property and access to adequate housing. Furthermore, States should take all other measures that are necessary to promote access to land and housing for disadvantaged women, particularly those who are unable to work for whatever reason, who live in poverty and/or who head households on their own.

The task is daunting, but not impossible. Women’s rights advocacy organisations in Africa are leading the way and making signi. cant progress towards women’s equality. The COHRE Women and Housing Rights Programme (WHRP) is committed to working closely with these local women’s rights groups in a spirit of co-operation and solidarity.

COHRE would like to express its deepest thanks to those organisations that so generously assisted in the production of this report. We hope that it provides useful information on existing practices related to the status of women’s inheritance rights in a variety of countries and cultural contexts.

In addition, we urge all concerned and appropriately placed actors to take account of and act upon the concrete recommendations which we make in various parts of this report, and which are highlighted and listed in Section 5, where COHRE proposes constructive actions aimed at the realisation by all women of their rights to land, adequate housing and, speci. cally, inheritance of land, housing and other property.

Finally, COHRE wishes to express its sincere thanks to the Netherlands Ministry of Spatial Planning, Housing and the Environment (VROM, Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieu) for its generous support of this project.

Scott Leckie
Executive Director

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