May 22, 2008

Women need more rights to land, says study

Shortcomings in laws dealing with communal land rights and traditional authorities are so diverse that they should be amended to better secure property rights for widows and single women, handle land disputes and give land boards more clout to act, a new study reveals. A report released by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) with the title 'Protection For Women in Namibia's Communal Land Reform Act: Is it Working?' says rural people, especially women in the four north-central regions, were mostly uninformed abut their land rights and thus did not turn to the relevant authorities to claim these rights.

"The Ministry of Lands and Resettlement should embark on an aggressive information campaign to educate land right holders about their rights and to end property grabbing of homesteads from widows," recommends Wolfgang Werner, author of the 40-page publication. "While land rights of widows are now much more secure, they remain vulnerable to property grabbing, meaning the practice of families of deceased husbands claiming moveable property from the homesteads of widows. This practice leaves many widows without the means necessary to cultivate their land, and sometimes even without adequate shelter," Werner says.

The report investigated women's land rights in the four north-central regions - Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto - after gender equality was addressed in various policies and laws since Independence in 1990.

"There is no doubt that the revision of customary laws for communities in the (central) north in 1993, combined with the Communal Land Reform Act, played a major role in making the land rights of widows more secure," the study found.

The Act provides that upon the death of the land rights holder, the land may be reallocated to a spouse or another dependant.

"The right of women to own land, and more specifically to inherit land in their own right, is an increasingly topical issue as the HIV-AIDS pandemic continues to take its toll. Arguably, for the Namibian public and Government, the single most important aspect of women's rights to land, or the lack thereof, has been the eviction of widows from the land they have cultivated."

During his field work in 2007 in preparation for the report, Werner learned that the Communal Land Reform Act and action of traditional authorities had curbed the eviction of widows to some extent, but the grabbing of property and assets following a husband's death often left them unable to tend the land, plough, sow and reap mahangu. A widow is often fearful of reporting her eviction to a local headman. As many widows came to be close members of their husbands' extended families during their marriages, they felt reluctant to report the family to the headman. They feared for the well-being of their children because a paternal uncle, for example, may decide to withdraw his support for a widow and her children once she has reported him to the headman.

There have also been reports of deceased husbands' families not physically evicting widows from their land, but resorting to indirect means like alleging witchcraft, which appears to be a potent force in manipulating decisions about land and other issues. ‚ÄĚSome families will intimidate the widow into leaving the land by putting a curse on her or, the extended family of the deceased husband will allege that the widow bewitched her husband, thereby causing his death. This story will be taken to the headman, who in all likelihood also believes in witchcraft. He will evict the 'bewitched' woman from the land out of fear of the 'Big Man', being the witch. These practices were said to be fairly common," the LAC study revealed.

Although traditional leaders may not demand payment for land use rights, this practice continued in some areas, especially if widows did not know the laws. Where headmen were confronted with the legal provisions prohibiting any form of payment as a token of appreciation, they were said to back down. Where widows did not know their legal rights, headmen would insist on such payments. In the event of a widow dying, her son or daughter inherited the land and assets, but was required to pay N$400 to the headman for the land, according to the study. Where there were one or more heirs, the one able pay the N$400 would obtain the field and other assets. "Traditional authorities do not regard property grabbing as a criminal offence as this act is perpetrated in terms of customary inheritance practices. To the extent that this is the case, property grabbing cannot be defined simply as theft, as the perpetrators feel that they are entitled to the property in terms of matrilineal inheritance rules," writes the author of the study.

The study recommends that the Lands Ministry should conduct information campaigns about the provisions of the Communal Land Reform Act and amend that law to better protect land rights of rural people, especially women and to add clauses to allow single women to own land. The Traditional Authorities Act should also be amended "to separate land ownership from governance issues". This would give holders of land rights, and not only traditional leaders, a say in who should administer their land. (The Namibian, Windhoek)

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