Congolese Widows Stripped of Inheritance

Law ignored in favour of traditional view that wives have no right to husband’s property.

Congolese Widows Stripped of Inheritance

Law ignored in favour of traditional view that wives have no right to husband’s property.

Monday, 27 June, 2011

Widows in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, are being deprived of their legal right to inherit property from their late husbands, rights groups say.

Inheritance rights have long been a contentious issue, particularly in rural areas where customary rules are seen as more important than statutory law.

Legislation in DRC guarantees women the right to inherit property from the marriage, but this is overridden in practice by the view that a family’s assets are transferred down the male lineage, while a bride is regarded as her husband’s chattel with no independent rights of ownership, especially but not only to land.

“When a woman survives her husband, the trend is very often one of ignorance [of the law] on the part of the family of her late husband, especially if the woman has no gainful employment,” according to a recent report by group called Dynamique des Femmes Juristes, DFJ, (Women Lawyers’ Dynamic) based in Goma in eastern DRC. “This attitude seems simply unfair because the efforts of women's participation in the home cannot be overlooked.”

Miriam, a 45-year-old Goma resident who lost her husband two years ago, told IWPR how she found it impossible to claim her inheritance.

“When my husband died, all our belongings were taken away by my in-laws. They accused me of being responsible for my husband’s death. so I could not inherit,” she said.

Miriam’s civil marriage was registered with the state, giving her automatic legal rights to all property acquired during the marriage. This did not stop her late husband’s relatives from seizing everything.

“They took everything: the house, the cars, the fields –they took it all,” she said. “Even the children did not get anything of their father’s property.”

After her husband’s death, Miriam was driven out of her home and now supports herself and her children by working as a cleaner.

“My children now live in misery and poverty, while the fields and houses of their father are occupied by members of his family,” she said.

Cases like Miriam’s are clearly in breach of the law.

“Congolese law is clear on matters of estate and inheritance,” DFJ’s head Mireille Ntabuka explained. “Women are among the different categories of beneficiaries envisaged in the law, whether or not the deceased left a will. According to the current rules, when one partner dies, the division of belongings takes place according to the [type of] marriage settlement chosen by the spouses.”

Ntabuka was referring to the difference between a civil-law marriage, which stipulates equal ownership rights for both partners and full inheritance for one if the other dies; and traditional, unregistered weddings, which are not recognised by the state and thus do not confer the same rights on widows.

Even women who are aware of the law can be deprived of a legacy, often through accusations that they do not deserve a share.

“In the DRC, once a man dies, his family turns against his wife, accusing her of never having worked and saying she therefore cannot inherit, since everything belongs to the husband,” Feza Mukendi Mireille of Norwegian Church Aid in Goma said. “Other families accuse the woman of having killed her husband. Therefore, some women are rejected by their in-laws and excluded from inheritance.”

Widows often cannot afford to bring a legal case against their in-laws.

“When my husband died and our belongings were taken away by his family, I wanted to sue them. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough money to do so,” Masika Sikuli, a widow from Goma, said.

Nevertheless, civil marriage is still the only institution that at least offers the possibility of legal redress. Some churches are now asking couples to go through the civil registration ceremony before seeking a religious one.

“Civil marriage is one of the strategies for women to have access to inheritance like men,” Goma’s mayor James Kambere Nzumuka said. “People don’t know what it is meant for, how important it is. Many just use custom and religious marriage, and they [later] have problems.”

Passy Mubalama is an IWPR-trained reporter in Goma.

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