Property rights
Property Rights Indispensable to Brighter Future for Women in Africa

A Report by the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa
Property rights
A township outside of Hout Bay in the Western Cape province of South Africa

Women in Africa remain excluded from the benefits of property ownership, and this must receive the attention of African policy makers and society at large.
This is the message from a new study by the Institute of Race Relations entitled Property Rights Belong to All: Women and Property Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. The institute is releasing it to coincide with the beginning of 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children.
‘Property rights are human rights’, says IRR project manager Terence Corrigan, the author of the report, ‘and denying them to any group is not only a serious transgression in itself, but has numerous subsidiary effects. Where women find it difficult to own their means of sustenance and livelihood, they are denied opportunities for mobility, and are vulnerable to abuse.’

For too long, the curtailment of women’s rights has reinforced their subordinate position in society.
 

Although recognising the progress that has been made in extending legal rights to own property – whether land or any other assets – the report points to extensive residual discrimination in property holding in the region. The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law shows that some 40% of the world’s economies impose some discrimination on women in regard to ownership and control of assets. Across the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion is fully two-thirds. Most commonly, they fail to recognise non-monetary contributions to household work – something of considerable importance where marriages fail and property is divided. In addition, ten countries have discriminatory property ownership regimes, while 13 do so in inheritance rights for children, and 13 in respect of spouses. Eight countries grant differential rights to spouses in respect of control of family property.

In many instances, a combination of these factors coexist. Even where legal systems acknowledge equality between men and women, practical considerations frequently prevent women from asserting their rights. The state of land registries, the inaccessibility of courts and lack of awareness of the law on the part of civil servants are examples of this.
Socio-cultural norms and customary law often constitute further barriers. The report documents instances of widespread rejection of reform (including by women) on the basis that reform would challenge established cultural beliefs.

The report notes that securing property rights for women across the continent will require multi-faceted strategies.
Litigation has forced change in some contexts. Leadership and championing have shown some successes, again in particular contexts. A more durable solution requires the difficult work of activism, education and alliance building in shifting public opinion, and creating a new paradigm within which there is nothing exceptional about African women being property owners and the creators of their own fate.
‘This is the work of years if not generations,’ Corrigan remarks, ‘but it is one that must be undertaken on both moral and developmental grounds.’