17 October 2011

Ghana: Women's Right to Property and Inheritance Critical to Poverty Reduction

For the past 16 years, Yaa Serwaa (not real name) has been living with HIV / AIDS. She only got to know she was positive after the death of her husband. Her husband had contracted the disease and never informed her.

Yaa Serwaa and her three children were ejected from the matrimonial home upon claims that the house was built on a family land. She had to return to her family house empty handed after years of toil with her husband. Back in her father?s house, she faced stigmatization from her siblings who had been informed by her husband?s family members about the cause of her husband?s death. Since she had no source of income to cater for her children who were still in school, coupled with emotional trauma, she ran away from the house, leaving her children to their fate. Later, when she heard of her father?s death, she returned to the family house to claim her inheritance only to be told she had no share in the father?s inheritance and was sacked from the house to fend for herself. ?Even other female siblings did not benefit from my father?s inheritance,? she lamented. Yaa Serwaa?s story is the situation many widows living with HIV/AIDS find themselves, including those who do not even have the disease. Women face a lot of discrimination when it comes to property ownership and inheritance. In some cultures in Ghana, women are not allowed to inherit their husband?s property, and this sometimes drives them into poverty. Also in some communities, women themselves become inheritable properties by the husband?s families and therefore cannot inherit their husband?s property. Speaking at a workshop in Accra organized by the People?s Dialogue on Human Settlement (PDG) and Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP), Ms. Slyvia Noagbesenu of Initiative for Gender Equality in Africa noted, that women?s right to property and inheritance was a major problem in Africa, such that those living with HIV/AIDS suffered more than they should due to stigmatization, leading to rejection by their families. She said denial of the women?s right could spread the disease, since the women would have to find other means of livelihood to help their families.

She advised that women need to be educated and sensitized to ensure that their properties were actually registered in their names. ?Women should seek information in relation to properties they acquire with their husbands to ascertain the true owners of the properties. To better understand issues related to women inheritance and property rights and to advocate for them effectively; stakeholders would have to further research on what women can inherit and what they cannot, in respect to family verse personal property based on their cultural context.? ?The availability of antiretroviral drugs for people living with the HIV/AIDS as well as education is also very important, she stressed.

The workshop, sponsored by UN Women was on the theme Promoting Women?s Property and Inheritance Rights through Advocacy to Eliminate Gender Inequality and Reduce HIV/AIDS in Ghana.? Togbega Noagbesenu III, Paramount Chief of Awate Traditional Area in the Kpando District of Volta Region, who spoke on the topic, Womens Property and Inheritance Rights in the Context of HIV/AIDS: The Perspective of Customary Law?, called on the various houses of chiefs to research into the customary laws in the various communities and modernize the outmoded customary practices that hindered the progress of women in the communities and also ensured that women were included in decision making at the grass root level.

He noted that customary laws were made by our ancestors to help shape our daily lives, but because of our selfish gains and the behavior of some people it had brought about the negative practices meted out to women. ?We have not been able to manage the laws well and these laws have therefore been skewed in favour of men and prevented women from progressing.? He indicated that the customary laws were meant to be obeyed for justice to prevail in the community but not deny other?s their rights.

The traditional and customary laws are now being questioned and the negative ones being thrown away, he stated. He said women should be recognized in consonance with God?s creation and with the different purpose for which they were created. ?Women have a role to play in society and should be allowed to play that role to complement the role of men? he stated. ?Women should push for their representation in decision making at the family level to be able to influence decisions that affect their lives at all levels.

The paramount chief also encouraged women groups to work to ensure the abolishment of negative practices that affected them. Togbega Noagbesenu is also advocating for the inclusion of queen mother?s at the houses of chiefs in the various regions. According to him, there were still problems with property rights in respect to husband and wife property ownership and family inheritance even though a law had been passed since 1992 (Interstate Succession Law). Also because of the matrilineal /patrilineal succession nature of our family system, women are disadvantaged when it comes to family inheritance.

In his closing remarks Mr. Salifu Abdul-Mujeeb, Programme Officer of PDG, recalled findings from consultative workshops organized by PDG in four regions: Northern, Central, Western and Greater Accra Regions were so worrying that there was the need to have a second look at the laws with regard to property and inheritance rights.

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