Women, Death, and Inheritance — by RMH

Let’s talk about what happens when people die. By which I mean, what happens to MONEY when people die.

I don’t mean to trivialize death, or grief – I’ve experienced my share of both. But today I want to deal with inheritance – the practical matter of who gets the money (or the land, or the belongings) of the deceased.

This is not something Americans think about very often. To most of us, I think it is an unwelcome and even unsettling topic – because in order for us to inherit, someone close to us must die.  Still, we arrange for property to transfer hands; many write wills detailing their wishes after their death, entrusting them to a family member or a law firm. Often, families will discuss ahead of time how property is to be distributed. I know my grandparents have discussed their desires in detail with their sons and daughters. Where there is no will, the U.S. has laws that determine how property is to be divided fairly among surviving relatives.

Here’s something else Americans don’t think about: the fact that in too many countries, women are unable to inherit property – either because of laws that restrict their inheritance outright, or because of communities (and governments) that fail to protect them.

In some countries, including Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Mali, Jordan, Iran, and Bangladesh, daughters are entitled by law to inherit only half the amount their brothers do – and they are often pressured by those brothers or other family members to relinquish even that. In Kenya, women are entitled to receive only one third of their parents’ property. In Swaziland, women are not allowed to inherit property at all.

Even where laws exist enshrining equal or partial inheritance rights for women, “customary law” may allow communities to ignore those rights.  For example, in many countries, when a woman’s husband dies, the law and her community turn a blind eye to the theft of her inheritance, even though she may be legally entitled to some or all of her late husband’s property (which may, in some cases, actually be their joint property). Her late husband’s family arrives, taking her money, her belongings, even her home – anything that they can say her husband purchased (and as women in many of these countries are often expected not to work for pay, this could be everything she has). The woman may even be dispossessed of her children (who, like her home, “belong” to her husband’s family) and thrown destitute out into the street. Monstrously, the woman HERSELF might be treated as inheritance and collected with all the rest of her dead husband’s things – forced to marry a man from their family: perhaps her brother-in-law or one of his cousins. This is sometimes couched as a way to “take care of” the widow, and indeed might be the only choice the woman has to hold on to some of her possessions – and to her children.

At this point, you may be thinking: is this person exaggerating?

To you I say: I WISH I was exaggerating. But the sad fact is, this is reality for too many women around the globe.

Do I sound angry?

You bet I do.  I am.

You should be too.



A few links for further reading:

Here is a story about a woman in Uganda who resisted “widow inheritance” (marriage to a member of her late husband’s family), here is one about a woman in Kenya who also refused the practice, and here is one about another woman in Kenya who could not.

3 thoughts on “Women, Death, and Inheritance — by RMH

  1. Rainie says:

    Great post, I’m angry too! The thought of my possessions being stripped away while dealing with the death of my husband, honestly enrages me. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. I am hopeful that people like you and I will turn this anger into demands for equality.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Your comment about Kenya is…interesting. Not all tribes have the same inheritance practices so how did you arrive at that 1/3 number? For example in my tribe, women can inherit same as their brothers (especially if they are single and dependent on their parents). In addition, parents can make specific gifts to their children (and other relatives) of either sex (e.g. land, houses, or a business) that are not considered as part of the estate during division of the inheritance.

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