Inheritance rights still a thorny issue

“I knew that my father’s relatives would target these and leave me and my mother with nothing,” Shangheta said. As elsewhere in Africa, Namibian tradition still allows relatives to take land, livestock, furniture and other possessions from bereaved widows and their children. “They still took all that was left, leaving a few goats and five cattle out of 230 for my mother,” Shangheta said. Ngohauvi Ndindo, a 33-year-old widow, told a similar tale. When her husband passed away after a long illness last year, his relatives stripped her of everything. “There was a will, but I couldn’t enforce it because of the threats I was receiving and because it is not customary to consult wills. They [her husband’s relatives] even threatened to burn down the house if I pursue the will with the courts,” said Ndindo. Another widow, Wanipi Karuru, and her four children moved in with relatives when she refused to be “cleansed” by sleeping with her husband’s younger brother and be ‘inherited” after her husband died. “I refused to be treated like a piece of furniture ‘ to be inherited after being disinherited,” Karuru said. “But I lost everything that I had accumulated in 14 years of marriage.” With HIV/AIDS taking its toll in the country, Namibia is under pressure to come up with ways of protecting widows and orphans. According to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, the country has a prevalence rate of 21.3 percent. Namibia’s constitution recognises the right of all persons “to acquire, own and dispose of all forms of immovable and moveable property in any part of Namibia”, and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, religion or economic status. The Legal Assistance Foundation says it has launched a programme to train traditional leaders in inheritance laws, as complicated kinship systems are used to determine inheritance under customary law. Ernestine Kalomo, a legal practitioner at the foundation, said the solution to property grabbing rested on finding a compromise between customary and common law. “In customary law there is no compromise, but there is need for a change in mindset,” Kalomo commented. “Even traditional leaders lack information on how they can balance the two.” Namibia’s Married Persons Equality Act of 1996 and the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 provide the basis for improving the situation of women by allowing widows to remain on common household plots. And last year the Namibian government announced that it would introduce a new inheritance bill to protect the rights of widows and children, who are often dispossessed of land, homesteads and possessions. Justice Minister Pendukeni Ithana said new legislation to prevent their victimisation was currently being drafted. The Succession Bill seeks to guarantee surviving spouses a specific portion of the property of partners who die intestate, and to ensure that surviving spouses have lifetime rights over household goods and land used by the extended family. But gender rights groups say the legislation will not be properly enforced. “The problem is that such legislation is only pieces of paper that are giving women rights in writing only,” said Liz Frank, the director of Sister Namibia, a Windhoek-based gender rights organisation. “Women don’t know about their rights, let alone the fact that they can’t be forced into marriage.” Frank said she looked forward to the day when the officials from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare would go around the country educating people about the new laws. She also argued for women’s participation in the law-making process, to ensure that their inputs were taken into consideration when legislation was being drafted. Frank noted that common law existed on a par with customary law, which was limiting or cancelling out the inheritance rights of widows and orphans. ‘ Irin.

April 2006
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