Traditionally, women in the DRC gained shares in property through marriage, not inheritance. Today few realize that this custom contradicts the law, which codifies women’s rights to inherit land. In the North Kivu province, one organization is spreading awareness of the law and helping to resolve inheritance disputes.
RUTSHURU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — When Salima Salumu’s mother died, she left a large plot of land for her children and ignited a conflict that is not unusual here in the North Kivu province.
While Congolese law provides that each child has the right to inherit equal shares of their parents’ estate, Salumu’s three older brothers claimed the family’s 40-hectare (about 98-acre) holdings for themselves. Because Salumu is married, they reasoned that she already had a share in her in-law’s property through her husband and therefore didn’t have a right to share in the inheritance.
Many men in Rutshuru, like Salumu’s brothers, dispute the idea that women who marry should have the same rights of inheritance as men. Many men and women are not aware that this customary view is at odds with current law. Further, such land disputes between deceased parents’ children divide families.
To prevent such division, some women choose not to step forward to secure their rights. Some don’t step forward because they are unaware of their rights and only know the custom that has long benefited their male siblings.
But others, like Salumu, are beginning to challenge their siblings and assert their rights, bringing inheritance cases to local authorities, heads of neighborhoods and human rights associations.
One of those associations is Hommes visionnaires pour la nature, Visionary Men for Nature. It was created to raise awareness among local populations about land rights and to help individuals assert land rights under Congolese law.
“The idea to create the association sprang up in our mind as we couldn’t sit back and allow the continued rise in land inheritance-based conflicts,” says Bujiri Georges, coordinator of the group, which is mediating cases for married women who assert their rights under Congolese law.
The awareness-raising efforts are exerted through public broadcasts in radio and television programs, panel discussions in different neighborhoods and even in door-to-door campaigns.
Salumu says the group’s activities helped convince her to assert her legal rights.
“I initially bought into the belief that I was never meant to inherit a portion in our deceased mother’s estate,” Salumu says. “And you know what? Today, I’ve come to realize that my brothers were wrong.”
The association works in partnership with the government and resolves 15 to 20 inheritance-related conflicts every month. Should the association be unable to resolve a conflict, the conflict is referred for further legal action.
The land conflict involving Salumu is one of 15 conflicts that were dealt with in April. When the office is apprised of a complaint, the association’s coordinator sends two of its six mediators to collect testimonies free of charge.
Salumu’s brothers often refused to answer phone calls from the mediators, thus refraining from taking part in the different stages of the mediation process. But in the end the conflict was resolved: she received a portion of her deceased mother’s land.
Rémy Rubomboza Mangnat, head of the Land Litigation Department’s legal unit in Rutshuru, says Salumu and other women’s inheritance rights are based in Article 755 to 800 of DRC’s Family Code. It stipulates that children – both male and female and born in and out of wedlock – have equal rights to their parents’ estate.
“The law prevails over custom, not custom over law,” he says.
And customarily, women were disenfranchised. Muyaga Abubakale, 72, says in his grandparents’ time a woman could not inherit land and gained rights only by marrying into another family, thus receiving land and a house from in-laws. He adds that in his village in Nyarutshuru, when a woman lost her parents she received only a loincloth referred to as “kikwembe ya machozi” in Kiswahili, or “the loincloth that helps drown out pain,” as comfort.
But that is changing. Salima Salumu’s elder brother, Jacques, now acknowledges that he erred in blocking his sister’s inheritance. His arguments, he says, were based in custom not law.
“I didn’t even know that such a law existed, nor what it addressed,” he says. “But with the association’s awareness-raising campaign, I’ve come to understand that all children are entitled to the whole of their parents’ estate in equal shares.”
Sylvestre Ndahayo, GPJ, translated the article from French