The Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network (KELIN) recently scored an important victory, when widow Caroline Peres Achieng Oyumbo returned to her village after 13 years of banishment. According to Suba custom, Oyumbo would have had to agree to have unprotected sex with a village man to "cleanse" her after her husband died. This she refused to do, and she was banished from the village along with her two children (see Isaiah Esipisu's story for Thomson Reuters, Cast Out by Custom).
Oyumbo's story is not unusual, nor is it limited to Kenya. All over Africa and parts of Asia, women do not automatically have the right to inherit land upon the death of their husbands. Customs of "cleansing" and "inheriting" women are attempts to fix the underlying imbalance that occurs when the husband dies, and his widow is left without legal claim to his property. After the tragically early death of a cameraman we worked with, his widow called us several times asking that we send her children away to boarding school - not just because she wanted them to have an education, but because she feared for the boy's life at the hands of his uncles, who were trying to take over the property she lived in. Widows are often evicted and thrown off their land, along with their children. It is a not insignificant factor in the prevalence of child marriage - desperate widowed mothers will try anything to protect their young daughters.
According to Paola Totaro of the Thomson Reuters project This is Place, land registration is a critical issue in rural areas in Africa:
The reality is that undocumented land is a problem in both African cities and in rural areas. Many countries are still using land administration systems they inherited from colonial times and kept after independence. They are still using old surveys, mapping and registration systems. In addition, while many African countries have introduced legislation to allow land ownership claims by communities and indigenous peoples dependent on ancestral forests or farmland for their livelihood, many simply do not have the resources to embark on the often lengthy process. Customary laws are also an impediment: the majority of Africa’s small farmers are women– around 70 per cent according to the World Bank – and they are vulnerable because patriarchal tribal traditions stop them from being allowed to own land or to inherit from their fathers or husbands.
Civil society in Kenya is approaching this problem from two angles - legal and cultural. A KELIN project called Working with Cultural Structures to Ensure Access to Justice by Widows and Orphans was crucial to negotiating Oyumbo's return. They worked with village elders and church leaders to persuade them that these customs are harmful and an affront to human dignity. Having the legal right to inherit land is not necessarily the same as being able to exercise that right. For that, community buy-in is required.
Since her return, Oyumbo has been active in tracing other widows in exile and working towards bringing them home. "Managing to bend this customary rule is a major breakthrough that gives hope to several women in this community who are suffering silently under some of these dehumanising cultural beliefs," she says.