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Securing women’s property rights in Kenya

Friday March 06 2020
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A "For Sale" sign stands in front of a house. Women in Kenya still face hurdles when it comes to land and property ownership, more so widows. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

By NAJMA ABDI
By JULIANA NNOKO-MEWANU

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day tomorrow, women in Kenya still face hurdles when it comes to land and property ownership, more so widows.

Land access and ownership is an assured way for single-parent families headed by women to gain access to a better standard of living. However, widows are often disinherited and evicted from family homes and land, with serious consequences for them and their children. In rural Kenya, where residents have limited access to justice, discriminatory traditional practices operate by default.

When women take these cases to court, they must pay expensive legal fees, and poor and rural women fear they are unlikely to get justice.

The Constitution states that both partners in a marriage have equal rights before, during and at its end. The government has enacted laws to secure women’s rights to marital property, and repealed several discriminatory laws. The Marriage Act calls for registering all types of marriages, including customary. The Matrimonial Property Act protects women’s rights to property acquired during marriage, and the Land Registration Act defers to it. The Land Act provides spouses some protections from having their home or land leased or sold without their knowledge. The Law of Succession Act gives all children the same inheritance rights. But these laws have serious gaps and are poorly enforced.

The Marriage Act locks out cohabiting couples. The Matrimonial Property Act is unclear about what constitutes evidence of contribution, and makes the process of determining non-monetary contributions by women difficult during separation. The Law of Succession Act provides more protections for widowers than widows since widows lose their “lifetime interest” in property if they remarry. The deceased’s father is prioritised over the mother where there is no surviving spouse or children, and land, crops and livestock are exempt in certain districts; for instance, women only inherit a fraction of what men can under Muslim inheritance norms.

Women also face myriad social and cultural problems trying to enforce their rights to use, own, manage and dispose of land and property. Discriminatory social and traditional practices perpetuate the notion that sons should inherit land, and that women and girls should negotiate use of land through male relatives.

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Upcoming reforms could help address some of these issues. Last month, Parliament called for submissions related to an amendment of the Law of Succession Act to protect the rights of the spouse(s), children, and other relatives whom the person considered family or maintained before their death. Any revision of the law should align with the Matrimonial Property Act and ensure equality between women and men.

The Kenyan government should provide accessible legal information and ensure it reaches marginalised groups, especially rural women and girls. Kenya has a long way to go to make the right to land and property a reality for all women.

Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu is a women’s land rights researcher at Human Rights Watch; Abdi is an associate in the Africa division of HRW.

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