Discrimination against widows

From: “women-rights-week2
To: (Recipients of ‘women-rights
Subject: Discrimination against widows
Date: Thu, 18 Nov 2004 16:10:50 +0000



From: "Lucinda OHanlon" 
Below is a contribution from Vanessa von Struensee, JD, MPH 
concerning discrimination against widows.

Widows - both child and adult in Tanzania, as in many other parts of the world, face 
discrimination on a regular basis. In many African countries social and legal structures 
are the result of three coexisting cultural layers: The traditional, the colonial, and the 
post colonial economic, social, and political structures, rendering unviable the current 
sustained blanket application of traditional cultural practices unrealistic and unjust to 
a majority of African women, whose voices are not yet fully represented in national policy 
debates today. Though family patterns, on which the traditions were based, have 
drastically changed, customary laws of the past are still applied. While some may argue 
that the forced entry of African traditional societies into the capitalist economy has 
been imposed by colonial imperialists, the fact is these changes exist, Africa has been 
transformed and adaptation is necessary, and an idealization of the traditional past with 
an extended family th!
 at no longer exists in its traditional form is not helpful to creating the responsive 
institutions for Africa today. The extended family is not a static unit, but a dynamic 
entity customized by persons to fit their purposes. In discussing the role customary law 
should play in modern-day Tanzania, Rwezaura stated, "after conducting field research in 
Mara and other regions of Tanzania I am more than ever convinced that social and economic 
change has transformed our respective societies to such an extent that it is no longer 
safe for any court to apply any rule of customary law without first checking whether or 
not its application promotes justice". 

Customary laws and practices, if ever appropriate can no longer be justified in Africa 
under the guise of protecting the extended family, even if customary laws and practices 
were ever reasonable and justifiable in the past. A rejection of the customary rules of 
inheritance today by the growing women's movement in the continent stems from their 
inability to deal with changing circumstances in Africa. The impact of colonialism, 
urbanization, globalization, and the emergence of modern states in the continent have 
produced irreversible social, cultural, and economic changes in the continent which cannot 
be readily ignored. 

Inheritance rights are a critical issue for women because traditionally in many African 
countries, rather than offer protection to widows, common law and statutory laws in the 
country perpetuate the discrimination against them. The experiences of African widows 
range from disinheritance and forceful deprivation of property to the mandatory observance 
of harmful rituals.