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Women’s Rights and Customary Wrongs

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.

The women ultimately took their case to the United Nations (UN), where they have now struck a historic victory for equality for millions of women around the world. Tanzania is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its protocol. That allowed the two women to take their complaint to the committee that oversees states’ compliance with the treaty’s implementation.