Women, Property and Inheritance

Gender equalityHealthLand issues

Notes to broadcasters

The spread of HIV/AIDS is associated with an increase in the loss of property rights by widows. Many people believe that customary laws deny women inheritance rights. But more often it is a misinterpretation of these laws that results in women being denied their rights. In fact, the initial intent of customary laws was to ensure that widows and their children were provided for after the death of a husband.

Many organizations, such as the YWCA, offer assistance and support to women by educating them about the laws and by offering legal assistance. A list of a few other organizations appears at the end of this script.

Invite lawyers, paralegals or community workers who are knowledgeable about inheritance laws to come to your radio station to discuss women and property rights. Following is a sample interview with a legal expert discussing some important considerations for women.


Welcome to our show. Today we’re going to discuss some important questions about women and inheritance. For example, what happens to a woman when her husband dies, and who becomes the rightful owner of her property? Is there anything a woman can do to ensure that she receives the property?

To help us answer these and other questions, we’ve invited a lawyer, Mrs. Elizabeth Mutwa, to join us.

Welcome to the show Mrs. Mutwa.

Mrs. Mutwa:
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mrs. Mutwa, let me start by asking you this. What are some of the concerns you have about women and the inheritance laws that affect them?

Mrs. Mutwa:
Every day I meet women whose husbands are dying. These women are afraid that they are going to lose everything…their home, their land, their livestock…and they believe there is nothing they can do about it. That is a terrible, desperate feeling.

Yes, to feel that you are going to lose everything is terrifying.

Mrs. Mutwa:
Of course it is. And I’m sorry to say that often a woman does lose everything – because the property is taken by her husband’s relatives. We call this property grabbing.

Is there any way to prevent property grabbing… and return property to the woman?

Mrs. Mutwa:
Yes. Women have legal rights to land and other property. But unfortunately, most women don’t know this. So they don’t take any action.

You mean women think that the law is against them – so they don’t challenge it?

Mrs. Mutwa:
That’s right. But again, I want to make this very clear. The law is not against women. Women have rights to keep property – they just don’t know it!

So, it’s important for women to understand what rights they have, and how the law works.

Mrs. Mutwa:
Exactly. Once they know the laws, they can take steps to make sure that they keep their home and their land.

Okay, so I guess that when women come to you for help, this is one of the things you recommend – learn about the local laws. What else can a woman do?

Mrs. Mutwa:
I always recommend that a woman do three things.

  • First: Discuss the importance of making a will with your husband. Encourage him to make a will in the presence of witnesses.
  • Number two: Find out if it is possible to register the home where you live with your husband. If you can, you will remain the owner of the land and house after your husband’s death.
  • Number three: Get legal advice from a lawyer, a paralegal or a local organization that offers this type of assistance. They can help you understand your rights and the law.

Mrs. Mutwa, I think the advice that you’ve offered here on the program will help many women. Thank you for joining us today.

Mrs. Mutwa:
You’re most welcome.

I ask all the women listening today: Do you understand how inheritance laws affect you and your property? If not, find out! It is important to learn about these laws. Find somebody in your community who can give you information. This could be a women’s organization, a lawyer or a paralegal. Knowing the laws can change the future for you and your family.

– END –


  • Contributed by Jennifer Pittet, Thornbury, Canada.
  • Reviewed by Emily Frank, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, USA.

Information sources

  • Correspondence with Matrine Chuulu, WLSA, Zambia, and Emily Frank, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University.
  • Makena, Margaret, and Moses Ochanji. “Women, property and inheritance.” UNESCO, 2000.


  • Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF)
    Plot 1311, Lubu Road, Longacres
    PO Box 31456, Lusaka, Zambia
    WiLDAF promotes the effective use of a variety of strategies, including law, by women for self, community, national, sub-regional and regional development.
  • Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)
    Nationalist Road (Opposite University Teaching Hospital)
    PO Box 50115, Lusaka, Zambia
    Email: ywca@zamnet.zm
  • Women’s Voice
    PO Box 231
    Blantyre, Malawi
    Email: womens-voice@sdnp.org.mw
    Website: www.womens-voice.org.mw
    Women’s Voice works to foster awareness of women’s property and inheritance rights and rules of law.

Further reading