Greater action needed to protect women’s inheritance and property rights in the face of HIV

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Greater action needed to protect women’s inheritance and property rights in the face of HIV

13 March 2009


Elizabeth Mataka, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Credit: UNDP

If more women are to avoid HIV infection, laws on inheritance and property rights should be revisited, revised or better enforced. This was one of the key messages emerging from a high-profile side-event on women’s inheritance, land and housing rights in the context of HIV, which took place yesterday, 12 March, during the 53rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women held at UN Headquarters in New York.

The discussion brought together a range of speakers including Elizabeth Mataka, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and Rose Gawaya, Senior Gender Adviser of the UNDP HIV/AIDS Practice based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event focused on reviewing innovative work that has been done to increase women’s access to, control over, and ownership of land and housing in a bid to mitigate the impact of AIDS. Realistic and workable strategies, from the grassroots to international level, were explored.

"Lack of equal rights for women to inheritance and property excludes women from accessing resources that would help reduce their vulnerability to HIV and improve their ability to cope with the consequences of the epidemic."

Elizabeth Mataka, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa

Ms Mataka highlighted the increased vulnerability of women due to AIDS and called on governments to harmonise often conflicting laws and legislation. She said “Lack of equal rights for women to inheritance and property excludes women from accessing resources that would help reduce their vulnerability to HIV and improve their ability to cope with the consequences of the epidemic.”

The issue of such rights for women is of critical importance in addressing HIV. When a woman’s husband dies from AIDS, she might lose her home and land, inheritance and livelihood. This can leave her in a situation where she is forced to enter into relationships and behaviours that render her more vulnerable to the virus. The panellists contended that when women have enhanced access to ownership and control of land and property rights they have a greater range of choices, are far more able to exercise autonomy and, ultimately, are better able to protect themselves.

As well as the revision or implementation of existing laws on inheritance, the panellists recommended increased access to information and legal experts, enhanced partnerships among organizations working in the area and strengthened networks to raise awareness of the issues, with a focus on grassroots women as critical drivers of change. They also suggested greater use of the media and creative ways of sharing and packaging messages, while highlighting the need to increase the scope of research.

Other participants in the panel included: Jeanmarie Fenrich, Fordham Leitner Centre for International Law and Justice; Seodi White, Women and Law in Southern Africa (Malawi); Esther Mwaura, GROOTS Kenya, Huairou Commission; and Anne Gathumbi, Open Society Initiative for East Africa, Law and Health Initiative.

This event was organized by UNDP, the Huairou Commission and Soros/OSI with support from UNAIDS, GROOTS, ICRW, COHRE, Fordham Law Leitner Center and WLSA Malawi.