african women Patrick Meinhardt/ZumaPress

Women’s Rights and Customary Wrongs

One of the greatest challenges facing women in much of the developing world is the gap between their legal rights and their ability as individuals to claim them. But that could soon change, thanks to a case brought to the UN by two Tanzanian widows who were dispossessed of their homes by discriminatory inheritance laws.

SEATTLE – One of the greatest challenges facing women in much of the world is the gap between their legal rights and their ability as individuals to claim them. National constitutions are increasingly likely to guarantee gender equality, but many also recognize the authority of parallel legal systems based on custom, religion, or ethnic affiliation. And, unfortunately, law in many parts of the world has not kept up with changing times.

Fortunately, international human-rights bodies are taking notice of the gap. In 1999 and 2000, two young Tanzanian tailors, married in their teens and widowed in their twenties with four children between them, were dispossessed of their homes under their ethnic group’s customary laws of inheritance. Those customary laws give male relatives a greater claim to the deceased’s possessions than female members of his family, and typically bar wives altogether and give short shrift to daughters. In both of the Tanzanian cases, local courts ruled that the property the woman had shared with her husband, including items that had been purchased with proceeds from her labor, should go to her brother-in-law.

The young widowed tailors were left homeless with their children, but they refused to accept their dispossession. With the help of Tanzania’s Women’s Legal Aid Center and Georgetown University’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic – which I previously directed – they challenged the decision in the High Court of Tanzania. In 2006, the High Court concluded that customary laws on inheritance were “discriminatory in more ways than one,” but it refused to overturn them. The court likened doing so to “opening a Pandora’s box, with all the seemingly discriminative customs from our 120 tribes” vulnerable to legal challenge.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.

required

Log in

http://prosyn.org/p3bNKrz;

Handpicked to read next

  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable


    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.