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Branded as Witches, Stripped of Land: Tanzania’s Widows Need Support

When a widow is accused of being a witch in Tanzania, she can be blamed for her husband’s death, thrown off her land or lose her children. Some are killed for the imagined crime of killing their husband. Landesa’s Monica Mhoja explains why the government must step in.

Written by Monica Mhoja Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Equal land rights for women and stronger inheritance law could help protect widows in Tanzania from accusations of witchcraft.Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The word “kutulijiwa” is one I was familiar with growing up in northern Tanzania. In the Sukuma language, it means an outcast, a person banned from a community for being a witch.

Over the course of my career as an attorney, it is also a word that I have often heard used to describe widows. This was especially true during land reconciliation sessions run by Tanzania’s Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC), where I mediated dispute cases between widows and their in-laws – who often invoked this ostracizing trope as an excuse for evicting women from their land.

Being identified as a witch in a community can have a serious effect on a woman. Not only might she be expelled from her land by her in-laws; in the worst-case scenario, she could be put to death. And while research shows that these scenarios are common for elderly women and widows, the truth is that it can happen to any woman.

Why Widows?

One of the most harmful accusations a widow can face is that of being responsible for the death of their husband. One of the many women I represented at WLAC was Flora, whose husband died of HIV. During her husband’s burial ceremony in a village some 300 miles west of Dar-es-Salaam, Flora’s in-laws accused her of bewitching him and causing his death.

She cried all night, requesting to return to Dar-es-Salaam with her children. Her father-in-law wouldn’t allow it, forcing her to leave without them.

When she arrived, Flora found that her father-in-law had locked her matrimonial house, denying her access. Her ownership of land and property had determined who she was in terms of social identity, and without them, she was insecure and powerless.

Flora’s situation is similar to a number of widows in Tanzania and other African countries where we at Landesa work. Although accusations of witchcraft are not the only reason widows are left landless or impoverished, they can be a driving factor in justifying land grabbing in the eyes of those responsible, and indeed, by the community as a whole.

Progress and Challenges

The government of Tanzania and some civil society organizations have been working to end these harmful practices for some time. The government has enacted a number of reforms that recognize women’s land rights, including the ongoing review of the National Land Policy, and provision of tenure security for women in the form of joint or individual land titling.

Yet women are still subjected to discriminatory patriarchal norms expressed through customary inheritance laws that exclude widows from inheriting their husbands’ property, but allow the widows themselves to be “inherited” by a male relative of their late husband and made to marry them.

Some civil society organizations have trained paralegals on women’s land rights to promising results. In Flora’s case, WLAC’s representation helped her win back her children and her house. But she was luckier than many other widows who have been pushed off their land. Most legal aid providers are based in cities, while most widows live in rural areas without the means to travel to Dar-es-Salaam or other urban centers.

Pili, a child widow I met while conducting field research in Mara region, Tanzania, provides a case in point. A child bride at age 10, Pili was widowed at 13. After her husband died, Pili was inherited by her brother-in-law and lived in the compound. Three years later, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law accused her of practicing witchcraft. They demolished her hut and evicted her from the farm. There was no legal aid in the area; at 16 years old, she became landless and destitute. Unfortunately, she had no help.

The Way Forward

Landesa is working to help civil society groups, as well as other government and national stakeholders, collect, track and report data related to women’s land rights, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

We are also committed to strengthening paralegal networks to provide legal aid for land rights to various categories of women, including widows, working with other partners to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of witchcraft allegations and landlessness.

While this work is critical, international development groups, national NGOs and local civil society groups can only do so much. It’s in the government’s power to bring about widespread change and to improve the lives of widows on a wider scale.

For starters, more land should be allocated to women, including widows, who are expelled due to false accusations. The government should also pass clear legislation stating that spouses – both husbands and wives – are the legal co-owners of family land, and that they should automatically receive rights to that land upon death of a spouse.

The government and other stakeholders should continue to work together to address community beliefs, like accusing widows of witchcraft, that undermine women’s rights to land. Ultimately, it is this sort of action that will enhance the well-being and dignity of countless widows like Flora and Pili across the country – giving them and their children a chance for a better future.

The views expressed in this article belong to its authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

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