Protecting women's property and land rights to protect families in AIDS-affected communities
International Women's Day 2004 focuses on women and HIV/AIDS
8 March 2004, Rome -- Protecting the property and land tenure rights of women in AIDS-ravaged parts of Africa is vital to prevent rural households slipping into a spiral of poverty.
Losing land or property can unravel the whole fabric of a family, limiting access to safe, inexpensive and nutritious food and forcing children out of school and into employment.
"Family and community structures crumble in the wake of HIV/AIDS. Already facing poverty, the needs of many households become more acute and assets -- like land, property and tools -- become critical resources," says Marcella Villarreal, AIDS focal point at FAO.
In Namibia and Uganda, for example, where land law and property rights are made up of a complex system of overlapping official and traditional law, the rights of women to inherit, own and manage land can fall through the cracks.
Widespread illiteracy and a lack of access to formal court systems, lawyers and other legal resources can make matters worse. FAO is working with local authorities and communities to guarantee that women's rights are protected, by ensuring they have access to sources that explain their rights and the means to defend them.
For many women in AIDS-affected households, losing a husband is the first of many losses she will face. She risks being thrown off her farm, perhaps her only source of income and security, by relatives and robbed of her assets.
A recent FAO study found that over 40 percent of widows had lost cattle and tools, seized by relatives after the male head of household had died.
"HIV/AIDS can tip the balance into poverty," Villarreal adds. "The phenomenon we are witnessing in countries like Namibia, where women widowed and children orphaned by HIV/AIDS are stripped of property and the right to own and farm land, could spread further."
When women lack title to land or housing they have to face a narrower choice of economic options. They may have to deal with homelessness, poverty and violence, contributing both to their and their children's impoverishment. Poverty can also encourage high-risk behaviour such as engaging in unsafe sex for money, housing, food or education.
FAO is working with the Namibian Ministry of Women Affairs and Child-Welfare and the Legal Assistance Centre to raise awareness in rural communities of women's rights and how they can be protected by the law.
About three-quarter's of Namibia's 1.83 million people live in rural areas, and AIDS is the leading cause of death in the country, accounting for 28 percent of all deaths each year.
As a result of this FAO-assisted project, traditional leaders, church leaders, councillors and senior figures in the community are made aware of how land-grabbing can affect families already struggling to cope after the loss of a member to HIV/AIDS.
Volunteers are trained to be able to inform women on how to write a will so that their intent is legally expressed and followed after their death, thereby protecting their children's future. They are also taught about inheritance rights and women's rights in relevant legislation such as the Married Persons Equality Act.
For a woman, owning land or understanding her legal rights over a piece of land she farms also has environmental benefits. Women with secure land tenure are more likely to invest in their land than those without legal land rights, through irrigation, for example, or by farming in a more sustainable manner rather than for short-term gain. According to a recent World Bank report, increased land tenure security increases the value of the land and can greatly increase poor people's wealth, in some cases doubling it.
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