“A woman does not stay around when issues of land are being discussed,” is a popular aphorism in Igboland.
She is expected to sit docile in a corner when issues that border on land matters are being discussed, and is only expected to ask questions for clarification on boundaries as the only right bequeathed to her is usually to cultivate the land.
This paints a vivid picture of the circumstance in which most women in the southeast, whether single or married, find themselves.
In most cases, the women have access to the lands that belong to their male family members – father, brother or husband.
However, the death of a husband or divorce often results in the woman’s loss of access to the land, except if she has male children.
This clause also extends to other properties in the family, which are mostly inherited by male persons.
Joy Dike’s case is one that clearly depicts this trend of women’s non-inheritance and non-ownership of lands in the southeastern part of Nigeria.
The woman, who is a native of Umudioka in the Njikoka Local Government area of Anambra State, lost her husband, Gabriel in 2020, when she was just three weeks pregnant with her third child.
The 25-year-old, mother of three, was yet to come to terms with the death of her husband when her brother-in-law, backed by her mother-in-law, emptied her husband’s account and took over all his properties.
“They said that they opened an account for my children and I am not even a signatory to the account. I have been the one taking of my children. I need to take care of my children so that wherever my husband is, he will be happy that I fought for his children’s rights,” Joy lamented.
The young widow, who struggles to survive with the pittance made daily from her petty trade at the Afor-Igwe Market in Umudioka, said she took the matter to her husband’s kinsmen with hopes that it would be resolved amicably and quickly so that she can be able to take care of her children, but nothing has been done.
And just like Joy, Njideka Onuko’s challenges started immediately she lost her husband, Chinweze in 2019.
One of the victims, Njideka Onuko
In her own case, her step-sons were the ones bent on sending her packing so that they can take over her husband’s only land, which she had managed to build a house where she put up with her children.
She recounted, “Before my husband passed away, he divided the land into two, one for his first , Rose and her children, and the other for me and my children. I managed to build a five-bedroom flat which is now at the lintel level. I roofed and arranged two rooms in the house where I can stay with my children, but my step-sons want to take it all.”
Njideka said she has been under fire as her step-sons often engage her in fights just to take possession of the property.
“The other day, the youngest that is 24 years old, Chukwunonye came into the house and started throwing my things out. When I tried to salvage my things, he beat me up and rip my clothes off,” she cried.
The 40-year-old, mother of four said even after reporting the case severally at a police station in Awka, the matter could not be resolved and accused the police officers of being compromised.
Njideka noted that the community’s effort to resolve the crisis did not yield any meaningful result, adding that even the High Court in Awka that she approached for justice advised them to settle the matter out of court.
The widow disclosed that aside from the land matter, she and her children live under grave threat, noting that her nine-year-old, daughter was once assaulted by her step-sons and she had to approach the court once again.
“It’s just money that I am looking for to continue with the case. If my husband were to be alive, I would not be passing through all these,” she said tearfully.
Even daughters face the same ordeal
The Executive Director of Space for Change, a non-governmental organisation(NGO) Victoria Ohaeri, while speaking on the issue, recounted her personal experience as a daughter in her family.
She said, “I was very close to my father. So, because of the relationship I had with him before his death, I didn’t bother about who was male or female. I just did what I had to do. I remember everything that was needed after my father died. My uncles would seek information from me and I would provide it and solve the problem.”
After the funeral, Ohaeri urged her family to give two rooms to the daughters of the house, where they and their children could stay whenever they come around, but the family refused bluntly.
She said, “When I requested that two rooms be given to the daughters of the house, the men started looking at each other. They were looking at me as if I had said something evil. When I saw what was happening, I then asked them to at least give me a small plot of land close to the house to build a two bedroom apartment where we can stay whenever we visit. That request was what broke the camel’s back.”
Ohaeri said she stormed out of that meeting never to return to her father’s house again after her request was vehemently turned down.
What the tradition says…
It is no longer a secret that in most Igbo communities, a woman does not inherit land or landed properties. Also, a girl-child cannot inherit her father’s land or property if she has male siblings. A widow, especially one without a male child, automatically has her husband’s lands or properties taken over by his male siblings.
An Igbo traditional ruler in the Federal Capital Territory, Eze Ibe Nwosu
Buttressing this, an Igbo traditional ruler in the Federal Capital Territory, Eze Ibe Nwosu, explained that anything pertaining to land and landed properties is always handled by the men who are the real owners of the place.
He emphasized that only men give out land, adding, “If you marry, your husband will give you a portion of land. Every community has their own rules and laws, and this is our culture.”
The 85-year-old traditional ruler noted that if a woman wanted to buy land that it is preferable she buys it with her husband or son’s name, adding that matters that concern land and landed properties should never be toyed with.
Concerning inheritance and rights to land for women, Nwosu said that a father could give out lands or properties to his female child or children to hold if he so wished, but clarified that it would not be called ‘inheritance’ as only male sons inherit from their fathers.
Why things must change…
For a senior Director at the Advocacy Center for Civilians in Conflict, The Hague Netherlands, Udo Jude Ilo, the Igbo culture needs to move past counting members of the female gender as ‘second class citizens.’
He noted that it was an ‘unhelpful practice’ for women, who mostly cultivate the land, not to have access to it as their own right.
“This is not about human rights or women’s rights, it’s just about pure economics; that people who make use of the land should have direct access to it. For example, if a woman has issues with her husband, the man will tell her not to farm again because it is his land, and then leave the woman starves,” he said.
Ilo noted that apart from the economic disempowerment that comes with lack of access to land, culture, customs and traditions create a system where a certain gender is considered more human than the other gender.
He also spoke on the emotional and psychological trauma that is experienced by daughters who cannot inherit their fathers’ properties, except if their father left a will.
He also condemned the practice of denying a woman her place in the family because she has no son.
“Our sense of self-worth is often attached to what we can own, and so when it is taken away, it diminishes our confidence. That is the case with these women. It doesn’t allow them to be all that they can be, and that is dangerous and counter-productive,” he said.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, women farmers contribute about 70 per cent of food production in Nigeria, and a survey carried out by the organization in 34 developing nations showed that women’s land ownership can be as low as 10 per cent.
Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides them with income and security. Without these resources, a woman can fall into poverty and find it difficult to provide her family with basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, education and health.
According to a World Economic Forum publication that highlights the status of women’s land rights across developing countries and the benefits of women owning land, children whose mothers owned lands are more than 30 per cent less likely to be severely underweight than children whose mothers did not own lands
It added that women who owned lands are up to eight times less likely to experience domestic violence.
Why the denial persists
Executive Director of an Anambra-based NGO, Gender Perspective and Social Development Center, Eucharia Anekwe has been working since 2014 with women whose rights to properties and land have been denied them.
She stated that her organization has experienced many of such cases, especially with widows who have no male children or women whose male children are still in their tender age.
Executive Director, Gender Perspective and Social Development Center, Eucharia Anekwe
Anekwe attributed this issue to the preference of the male child over the female in Igboland, due to the patriarchy.
The human rights activist, who revealed that she had partnered with the National Human Rights Commission, the International Federation of Women Lawyers and other civil society organizations to seek justice for distressed women, lamented that many of the victims tend to withdraw from the case due to threat to their life and lack of funds.
For the issue of women’s disinheritance to be eliminated in Igboland, Anekwe suggested that community leaders should look into those cultures that discriminate against women and abrogate them, stressing that such cultures usually have grave consequences on the both genders.
“Many of our boys keep messing around because they know they will eventually inherit their fathers’ properties. In the western part of the country, girls obtain shares of properties. Why should our own case be different?” she queried.
In Yoruba Culture, females are entitled to the properties of their deceased parents, it was learnt.
What needs to be done
The Supreme Court of Nigeria once gave a landmark Ukeje v. Ukeje gave a landmark decision that upheld the rights of a female child to inherit her father’s properties.
Also, in the case of Anekwe v. Nweke, the Supreme Court found that any custom that denies women, particularly widows their inheritance, is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, and is condemnable.
However, Ohaeri stated the legal and judicial reforms will not be able to bring the much-needed change since the culture of women disinheritance is still prevalent across the eastern part of the country.
She said, “Igbo people need to come together and on their own to say that this thing is not working for us. Our culture needs some refining. The other tribes like the Yorubas are doing it. So let us borrow the best practices and do away with the ones that put down a particular gender.”
Using her personal story as an example, Ohaeri stated that the unhealthy practice had made many women unwilling to contribute meaningfully to the development of their communities due to fears that their male relations might come up one day and claim their properties.
“So, our women who are well to do have properties in Lagos and Abuja, and across major cities, but won’t build in their villages. People are exporting their wealth which means that the south east will never develop because they have not given people the incentives to develop,” she added.
Ohaeri noted that communities like Abiriba and Ohafia in Abia state, practice the matrilineal family system, and explained that such communities are the most developed and sophisticated in Igboland as both the men and women in the communities are not scared to take their wealth home.
Using the instrumentality of the Law
There are international agreements and legislations that have repeatedly reiterated the importance of women’s right to land and properties.
The 1998 draft resolution of the United Nation Economic and Social Council Commission on the Status of Women urged states to design and revise laws that will ensure that women are accorded full and equal rights to own land and other properties, including through the right to equal inheritance.
Also, the Nigeria Land Use Act of 1978 allows for the same opportunities for men and women to acquire or inherit land.
However, these lands are mostly owned and passed within the family through patrilineal inheritance in many communities.
The Nigerian 1999 constitution (as amended) also does not discriminate over land ownership, and section 43 of the same Constitution permits men and women to own and acquire movable and immovable property.
The Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women which incidentally, had been ratified on Nigeria, provides for women’s right to own and inherit property without discrimination on the basis of sex.
Worthy of mention is also Section 15 of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, VAPP ACT prohibits the subjection of widows to harmful traditional practices.
With all these being said, an Abuja-based legal practitioner and human rights activist, Judith Olisa, noted that the customary and Islamic laws surfaced when it comes to succession. She stated that they basically define who gets what at the end of someone’s life.
An Abuja-based legal practitioner and human rights activist, Judith Olisa
Although it varies from culture to culture, women are generally prohibited by customary law from owning or inheriting land or other property as land ownership is inherited through male heirs.
In Cameroon, for instance, although the 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance in the country guarantees equal access to land for all citizens, the customary laws and practices that discriminate against women’s land rights prevail over statutory laws.
The human rights activist, however, stated that there was a constant need to put such customs to repugnancy test and do away with cultures that are against equity, natural justice and good conscience.
Even at that, Olisa urged Nigerian women, who are being shortchanged to use the instrumentality of the law to get justice.
She lamented that most women are largely handicapped due to their ignorance, lack of resources and the economic power to seek for their rights.
“I believe that there is a need for more advocacy and awareness for women, so that if they ever find themselves in the kind of situations we have talked about, they can seek redress in court. There are organisations like International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) National Human Rights Commission and Civil Rights organizations that can take up their cases,” she added.
This story was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigate Journalism(WSCIJ)) under its Report Women Initiative.