Women in Zanzibar learn the law to keep control of their land

The government and several NGOs have embarked on a series of awareness campaigns to help women understand their rights of land ownership.

Peter Andrews/Reuters/File
A woman carries collected seaweed near the village of Jambiani on the southeast coast of the island of Zanzibar in 2009.

Zuhura Salim was not entirely sure her family would ever recover a piece of land that her father-in-law seized when her husband died in a fishing accident some 11 years ago.

The widow, who lives with her four children in Jambiani village, South Unguja, in Zanzibar in Tanzania, had grown food crops on the four-acre farm for years until her father-in-law seized and tried to sell the land after her husband's burial.

Although Tanzania's constitution upholds equal rights to property ownership, customary practices continue to impact women who often only have access to land via their husbands, fathers, or other male relatives and have no idea of their rights.

The situation is even more complicated in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago of the eastern African nation, that has its own laws and no land policy expressly guaranteeing women's rights to land.

"I really don't know why he decided to take away the land we really need for our very survival," Ms. Salim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "I've suffered a lot because I had no other place to plant maize and vegetables to feed my family."

But Salim, who had to try to eke a living from seaweed farming and bottling coconut oil, fought back, taking her father-in-law to court to try to retrieve the farm.

For she is among a group of widows in Zanzibar to receive training on property and inheritance rights.

The Zanzibar government and several non-government organizations have embarked on a series of awareness campaigns to enlighten women of their rights through grass-roots advocacy to get rid of discriminatory practices.

Social, economic, and political rights for women in Tanzania are secured within the constitution, but experts say women tend to have inferior land rights compared with men, and their access to land is often indirect and insecure as they rarely acquire land in their own right.

The training included an introduction to property rights, laws on matrimonial property, and inheritance rights.

It was conducted by a local nongovernment organization, Vitongoji Environmental Conservation Association (VICA), set up by Pemba environmental activists and funded by the Foundation for Civil Societies in Tanzania.

Salim said the training armed her with the knowledge to fight back, challenging her father-in-law over taking her late husband's farm and denying her family a livelihood.

"I filed a case at the high court. The proceeding went on for four months, and at last the judge was convinced that I had all the rights to inherit the farm," said Salim, who moved back to the farm last August and is again growing crops.

Low awareness and understanding of the laws in Zanzibar are still huge barriers for women to access their rights.

"If we do not get women to be aware of their property and inheritance rights issues, then we have done a zero work," said Mohammed Omar, VICA advocacy officer.

Zainab Suleiman, a resident of Gamba in Unguja North district, was shocked to learn two years ago that her husband had stolen her title deed and replaced her name with his name.

She said the matter has been resolved with help from women's rights activists and land officials who managed to cancel the faked title deed and issue a new one with her name.

However her marriage has failed with her husband threatening to file for divorce, saying she undermined his authority.

Not all cases work out so well.

A few months after Salma Haruni's husband died, his relatives at Kowani village told her that she and her daughter had to move out so a male relative could inherit the property.

Haruni, who has a nine-year-old daughter, refused, claiming she was legally married and therefore had rights to her late husband's assets but she gave up the right after a local leader told her traditional norms made it impossible for her to inherit property.

"I was brutally evicted, and since then I learned a bitter lesson that a marriage contract expires soon after your husband is dead," said Haruni, who is now living with her aunt at Kizi Mkazi village, a popular spot for dolphin viewing in Zanzibar.

Salha Mohamed, an official from Zanzibar's Ministry of Lands, Housing, Water, and Energy, said the initiative to train women on their rights was intended to empower women on land and property ownership issues.

"A lot of women out there still believe that only men have the right to own land and property. This is wrong," she said.

• Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. This story originally ran on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change.

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