The Issue: Women's Property and Inheritance Rights in the Context of HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa

Context:

According to the 2013 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the most severely affected region, home to 70% of all new HIV infections in 2012. Women represent 57% of the population living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Gender inequalities and harmful gender norms continue to fuel the spread of HIV. As in many parts of the world, women in sub-Saharan Africa do not enjoy the same rights, privileges, opportunities and access to resources or services as men. Women’s unequal legal, economic and social status directly impacts their ability to reduce their vulnerability to HIV or mitigate the consequences of AIDS.

WHAT is the issue and WHO does it concern?

Discriminatory laws and customary and traditional practices often limit or deny women’s rights to property and inheritance. These inequalities place women at heightened risk of HIV infection, constrain their ability to seek care, support and treatment and undermine their ability to cope with the consequences of illness and to care for themselves and their families. They also perpetuate and deepen women’s poverty, often leading to a downward spiral of lost economic opportunities, reduced security, higher dependence on male relatives, and an increase in the number of orphans.

WHY is this happening?

While many sub-Saharan African countries have legislative and policy frameworks safeguarding women’s rights to inherit and own land and property, women still experience a general pattern of discrimination in accessing and securing these rights. This is due to the lack of enforcement of existing laws, where they do exist and/or the privileging of customary, religious and traditional norms and practices, which tend to reinforce gender inequalities, over constitutional laws. Women living with HIV are particularly vulnerable to property and inheritance rights violations because of the widespread stigma associated with HIV. They are often stripped of their assets and forcibly evicted from their lands and homes. For some, the dispossession interferes with or precludes their ability to access HIV treatment, care and support. These issues are exacerbated for widows, who are often blamed for the AIDS-related deaths of their husbands.

HOW can this issue be addressed?

Women’s property and inheritance rights can play a significant role in potentially breaking the cycle of HIV and AIDS. Evidence increasingly suggests that where women’s property rights are upheld, women as heads and/or primary caregivers of AIDS-affected households are better able to manage or mitigate the impact of the epidemic on their families and communities as well as further prevent the spread of HIV. Studies in Africa and Asia have shown that women who own property or productive assets have higher incomes, a secure place to live, and greater bargaining power within their households, which, in turn, increases their ability to negotiate safe sex with their husbands.1 Furthermore, women’s property ownership is linked to lower rates of domestic violence, a key risk factor for HIV. Owning property can also help women improve their economic security as well as avoid situations that place them at greater risk for HIV infection.

What is the UN Women’s programme, “Action to Promote the Legal Empowerment of Women in the Context of HIV and AIDS” doing to address this issue?

  1. Increasing the number of legal frameworks and processes that effectively promote and protect women’s property and inheritance rights in the context of HIV and AIDS.
  2. Strengthening the enabling environment for promoting and protecting women’s property and inheritance rights at the community level.
  3. Working with local groups and NGOs to help women living with HIV and AIDS to better claim and advocate for their property and inheritance rights.

1 See Hema Swaminathan, Nandita Bhatla, and Swati Chakraborty (2007) Women’s Property Rights as an AIDS Response: Emerging Efforts in South Asia. New York: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW); Pradeep Panda, Jayoti Gupta, Indika Bulankulame, Nandita Bhatla, Swati Chakraborty, Nata Duvvury (2006). Property ownership & Inheritance Rights for social protection – The South Asia experience; and ICRW, HSRC, AfD (2008) Women’s Property Rights, HIV and AIDS, and Domestic Violence: Research findings from two districts in South Africa and Uganda. Cape Town: HSRC Press.