When Tanzanian lawyer Heri Emmanuel saw how his co-worker’s brothers and widowed mother were deprived of their inheritance rights, he decided to defend them in court and help them win their fair share.

Traditionally, when a Tanzanian man dies, his property is either inherited by his adult sons or, if his children are minors, it is repossessed by his family. Women are completely excluded from the process.

Emmanuel said that inherent in most traditions there is a belief that females are not entitled to equal treatment with males. “This is the case on all spheres of life,” he said, “be it socially, economically and politically. Thus, the same saga takes the same course when it comes to inheritance rights as far as women are concerned,” said Emmanuel, who has set up a nongovernmental organization to defend women’s and orphans’ rights to inheritance.

Tanzania and many other African countries that have signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women have laws that clearly state the rights of women and minors to receive an inheritance. The challenge is enforcement, and overcoming years of discrimination by making everyone aware of their rights.

Woman and child holding bowls (© AP Images)
In rural Uganda, many women cannot afford a lawyer to fight to inherit property. (© AP Images)

Lawyer Henry Wesaka Kuloba also defends women and minors in inheritance cases. In neighboring Uganda, he said, while there are laws meant to guarantee women’s rights to an inheritance, “the customary practices are so deeply entrenched … that allegiance to customs overrides adherence to the law.”

“Many legal inroads have been made in as far as challenging repugnant customs [is] concerned,” according to Kuloba. “But the rural woman who bears the real brunt of culture cannot afford the services of a lawyer and in most cases suffers in silence.”

In addition, many women are in cohabitational relationships that the law does not recognize as a legal marriage, and their partners are aware that they are not entitled to an inheritance, Kuloba said.

Both Kuloba and Emmanuel work to provide needy and disadvantaged people with affordable professional legal services and to dispel myths that keep women from exercising their new rights as legal heirs.

The cost to society

When women are dispossessed, more children and women could be forced to beg or join the sex trade. Emmanuel said two major barriers to change are women who don’t feel they are entitled to inherit and a reluctance on the part of many to write a will.

“There is a myth, I think all over Africa, that if you write a will, you are calling for your death! Silly! But the truth is, whether you write a will or not, death is certain, that you must die!” Emmanuel wrote in an email. He has written a book to help explain estate planning and how to protect survivors’ rights, and has helped more than 5,000 people to write a will.

Emmanuel said women have also lost their inheritance because they go to court too late due to ignorance of their rights and the rules.

“A widow might have a very good case, and she is actually entitled to the inheritance, but her claim is barred by the statute of limitation,” he said.

Emmanuel said individuals can help make sure women in their community are aware of their inheritance rights, what documentation they need and where to find help to claim those rights. “They say when you educate a woman, you educate the whole society,” he said.