Gender and Land Rights Database


Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights

  • There are as many customary laws in the country as there are communities. In most communities, women are not entitled to land in their own right under the customary law that operates in most of the indigenous areas (21).
  • Three marriage types are recognized in the country: customary, religious and civil law marriages. In customary law marriages, the wife is often regarded as the man’s property and she is generally not expected to entertain any measure of equality in whatever form. She cannot avail herself of the benefits enjoyed by a woman married under the Marriage Act. Upon her husband’s death she is more likely to be dispossessed. This is not the case with a man who upon the death of his wife inherits all of her properties. 
  • Customary and Islamic law marriages are potentially polygamous (11).
  • Under customary law, parties do not have equal rights in matters of marriage, dissolution and right of property because marriage is a union between two families (22).
  • Under customary tenure, women rarely inherit and mostly obtain use rights through their husbands. In some cases, unmarried women are allocated land by their families, which they retain after marriage. Nevertheless, the tenure security of women is weak, particularly when a man has multiple wives to whom he may assign different fields each cropping season. This uncertainty impedes on women’s willingness to invest in crop-improving technologies or to plant tree crops (12).
  • Married women are given more respect because of their status and husbands’ protection. In spite of that, under customary law, wives are subordinate to their husbands and in-laws.
  • In most communities in the country, a divorced or separated woman is stigmatized no matter the circumstances of the divorce or separation. This is more pronounced in the eastern part of the country than in other parts. In the north, separated or divorced women can marry after three months (13).
  • The Enugu ethnic group has a patrilineal descent system and a patrilocal residential system. The genealogical ties are traced from fathers to sons, without women. A woman cannot have land to build a house and is regarded as belonging to a different community because she is expected to marry a husband in a different place someday. A woman may acquire a piece of land in her marital home only in the name of her husband or male child. Such a portion of land is known as okaabi and is allotted to her for farming (18).
  • The following practices are in use and are allowed by customary law:
    - early marriage;
    - female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision;
    - violence on women, as men are allowed to beat and hurt their wives if they think they did something wrong;
    - purdah, the seclusion of women from public observation by wearing concealing clothing from head to toe and by the use of high walls, curtains and screens erected within the home;
    - early and unspaced child bearing;
    - widowhood rites and disinheritance (11).

Traditional authorities and customary institutions

  • Chiefs, clan heads, lineage heads, family heads, indigenous communities and landowning families acting through their representatives govern land in customary areas. Through them, customary land is held in trust for future generations.
  • The role of such traditional authority figures in allocating and managing land has evolved since colonial times because of the sociopolitical and economic environment and because of commodification of land and individualization of titles. From being custodians and trustees of communal land, these customary actors now play a major role in urban land supply and in lobbying opinion leaders to obtain consent before any communal/family land may be alienated (18).

Inheritance/succession de facto practices

  • Almost all ethnic groups practise patrilineal inheritance. Upon a man’s death, land may be divided among his male heirs or passed down solely to the eldest son, depending on the community practice. If a man has multiple wives, his land is divided equally among the wives and passed down to their sons. Women rarely inherit land, usually only if there are no male heirs. Inheritance is by far the most common mode of land acquisition among rural people (12).
  • A case study in the Enugu area reported that the most common channel through which women household heads acquired property was through inheritance from their spouses. When there was no will, women’s inheritance rights were governed by the type of marriage, customary or statutory, that was contracted between spouses. Very often it happened that the properties of the deceased were distributed among his dependants in accordance with the customary law applicable to him before he died. In most cases, these customs were unfavourable to women (18).
  • In customary law marriages, the wife is often regarded as the man’s property and she is generally not expected to entertain any measure of equality in whatever form. Upon her husband’s death she is more likely to be dispossessed. This is not the case with a man who at the death of his wife inherits all of her properties (11).
  • The provisions on inheritance in Islamic law give some protection to woman’s inheritance rights. Under the Sharia legal system, widows are allowed an in-house compulsory mourning period of four months and 10 days to determine whether they are pregnant for the deceased husband. After that period, if they are found not to be pregnant, they are free to remarry. Widows under the Sharia law inherit their husbands’ properties together with their children (11). However, women only have the right to inherit a small share (13).

Discrepancies/gaps between statutory and customary laws

  • Although the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 gives women married under statutory law the right to acquire, hold or dispose of property and the Matrimonial Causes Act provides that they have a share of family property in the event of divorce on equity grounds, women are unable to enforce property rights in a court of law because of ignorance of such rights, lack of financial security and the fear of antagonizing their in-laws. 
  • Women married under customary law do not have equal rights in matters of marriage, dissolution, inheritance and right of property (11).
  • Women can own land if they buy, inherit or are given it by their husbands; however, they lose the right to farm lands upon divorce (21).
  • Although statutory laws exist to outlaw some of the many discriminatory customary and religious practices, such as female genital mutilation or purdah, in practice, enforcement is negligible (5).
  • Although women might inherit property from their deceased husband through statutory law, in most cases, property is distributed among the husband’s dependants in accordance with the customary law applicable to him before he died (18).
  • Although Section 21 of the Child’s Rights Act stipulates 18 years as the minimum age for marriage and betrothal and outlaws the arbitrary fixing of age of marriage under customary and traditional practices, early marriage is still practised. The absence of a fixed age of marriage in the Marriage Act and the Matrimonial Causes Act exacerbates the situation (11).
  • Statutory law, in some instances, reinforces discriminatory customary provisions. For instance, Section 55[1][d] of the Penal Code, applicable in the northern part of the country, allows a man to beat his wife for the purpose of correction. Moreover, Sections 353 and 360 of the Criminal Code Act (CCA) of Southern Nigeria consider an indecent assault on females a lesser offence, a misdemeanour, while similar assaults on males are felonies (5).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography