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Protecting the property rights of women and children in Mozambique

Evictions, confiscation of property and discrimination are among the experiences increasingly reported by widows and orphans in Mozambique. An FAO-commissioned report offers recommendations to secure women’s and children’s rights to property and inheritance.

In Mozambique, widows and orphans are at increased risk of losing access to land, housing, and other property [FAO/G. Bizzarri]

Many women and children in sub-Saharan Africa have long experienced insecure rights to property and inheritance.  But in some countries, the situation is being exacerbated by early deaths from disease and conflict, as well as the loss of the extended family support systems that once functioned as social safety nets for widows and orphaned children.

This is the case in Mozambique. Despite recent economic growth, Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries in the world. This, combined with the severe impact of HIV and AIDS, has had a serious impact on food security and the socio-economic well-being of rural families. Although AIDS-related deaths in Mozambique are declining, they increased from 10.3 percent to 12.5 between 2001 and 2007.

Amid the AIDS epidemic, many widows and children have been unable to inherit, or protect their inheritance of, land, livestock, housing and agricultural tools. This has left them without access to the basic means to sustain their livelihoods and avoid extreme poverty and hunger.

Widows in Mozambique have told of being evicted from their houses or run off their land by their late husbands’ relatives. They have recounted how relatives have removed cattle, bicycles and other assets of value from their households.

Orphaned children who have lost both parents have reported seeing relatives take much of their parents’ property from them. Often, the families that were supposed to take care of the orphans discriminated against them, providing them with less nourishment and schooling.

The FAO-commissioned report, Children and women’s rights to property and inheritance in Mozambique, is based on research conducted from 2006 to 2007 by Save the Children. While the report says revamping national laws can help to protect the property rights of women and children, it also stresses the “urgent need to look beyond legal arguments and consider the community and cultural contexts as well.”

In Mozambique, for example, inheritance issues, and disputes over property, are seen by many as private, family matters. This kind of cultural information should be taken into account when dealing with property grabbing from widows or orphaned children.

Despite strong condemnation of individual cases of property grabbing from widows or orphaned children, there has been little active opposition from community members or leaders who do not want to interfere unless asked. Also, relatives tend to go unpunished when they grab property from children, as adults often do not perceive a need to account for their acts towards children.

The report advocates sensitizing and building the capacity of judges, religious leaders, traditional healers and other leaders in the community to address challenges related to women’s and children’s property rights.

As actors most likely to be involved in local conflict resolution, community leaders and judges are in the position to ensure recognition of both formal and customary laws, and to try to reconcile the two in mediation with family councils or in community courts, where inheritance disputes are most commonly handled.

The report was produced as a resource for government institutions, non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations, and is based on research conducted in four provinces of Mozambique in 2006-07. Its main purpose is to propose possible entry points for interventions, key messages and activities aimed at improving women’s and children’s property and inheritance rights and access.

In addition to capacity building, the report recommends revising national property rights and inheritance laws; encouraging families to make out wills and put legal documents like birth certificates and land deeds in order; expanding paralegal assistance for victims of property grabbing; and boosting communication and education of community members, including children.

The report recommends pointing out to community members that tradition calls for the care and protection of widows and orphaned children, and that women need access to land and property to support their livelihoods, and to take care of their children. It also recommends that family members who assume care of orphaned children also be the ones administering their inheritance, to ensure that it sustains and educates the children.

Ultimately, increasing awareness of the benefits of protecting widows’ and orphans’ property rights would help entire communities by boosting the potential of women and children to contribute to social and economic development.