Violations Doom Equality and Development
Millions of women around the world suffer abuses of their equal rights to own, inherit, manage, and dispose of property. These violations are degrading, discriminatory, and sometimes deadly. After their property rights are violated, many women end up impoverished, struggling to meet their families’ basic needs, living in decaying shacks in dangerous slums, and vulnerable to violence and diseaseincluding HIV/AIDS.
In sub-Saharan Africa, violations of women’s property rights are severe and pervasive. The tragedy of these violations is magnified by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic is raging and where 58 percent of those infected with HIV are women. In many African countries, women are excluded from inheriting, evicted from their lands and homes by in-laws, stripped of their possessions, and forced to engage in risky sexual practices in order to keep their propertyall because they are women. When they divorce or separate from their husbands, they are frequently expelled from their homes with only their clothing. Married women can seldom stop their husbands from selling family property. Women who fight back are often beaten, raped, or ostracized.
A number of factors contribute to these violations. Chief among them are discriminatory laws and customs, biased attitudes, unresponsive authorities, ineffective courts, and other obstacles, such as the social stigma of being branded greedy women or traitors of custom if women assert their property rights.
Violations of women’s property rights are not only an affront to human rights, they also doom development efforts and the fight against HIV/AIDS. According to the United Nations, gender inequality hinders development: women’s insecure property rights contribute to low agricultural production, food shortages, underemployment, and rural poverty. Losing property and undergoing harmful customary practices also increase women’s vulnerability to HIV infection.
Governments must immediately act to stop women’s property rights abuses. They must reform laws and ineffective institutions to improve protections of women’s equal property rights. They must also take steps to change discriminatory traditions and customs based on gender stereotypes and the notion of women’s inferiority.
Donor agencies can also play a critical role in eliminating violations of women’s property rights. As they mobilize to help countries combat HIV/AIDS and promote development, they must put women’s equal property rights high on their agendas.
For more information on women’s property rights abuses illustrated in a case study on Kenya, see the Human Rights Watch report Double Standards: Women’s Property Rights Violations in Kenya, available at http://hrw.org/reports/2003/kenya0303/.
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