From Brazil to Kenya, coronavirus widows lose their husbands and then their land

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Widows across the globe are being evicted, forced to give up property or to marry male relatives after their husbands die from the new coronavirus, land rights experts said on Tuesday.

Women often only earn legal or socially recognised rights to land and property through a husband or father, which are regularly violated during times of crisis, such as war or the HIV/AIDS pandemic, they said - and coronavirus is no exception.

“COVID-19 is a widow-maker,” Karol Boudreaux, chief programme officer at the land rights charity Landesa told a webinar organised by the Land Portal online platform.

“(The virus) exacerbates an already unequal situation for men and women,” Boudreaux said, citing a Tanzanian widow who was unable to stop the illegal sale of her property in another city due to limited land rights and COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Women face persistent barriers to land - including unequal legal inheritance rights and authority over assets during marriage - in 40% of countries, World Bank research shows.

Although most African and Asian farmers are women, only about 15% of the world’s farmland is owned by women, according to Landesa. And this inequality is set to worsen with the coronavirus, land experts from Africa and Latin America said.

“(In Brazil), when a man dies women are already approached to sell their land at the funeral,” said Patricia Chaves, head of women’s rights charity Espaco Feminista, which is providing women with legal support to protect land rights during COVID-19.

Poor women working in the informal sector are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic because they are forced to put themselves at risk to feed their families and to self-isolate in poor housing conditions, she said.

In Kenya, there is anecdotal evidence of widows being forced out of their homes by their in-laws during quarantine as they are seen as an extra burden and not really part of the family said Victoria Stanley, a World Bank land specialist.

“Widows depend on their (deceased) husbands for their property rights. There may be pressure from families to return properties or they may be forced into marriages with other family members,” Stanley said.

“This could be devastating if we aren’t paying attention,” she added, calling for a moratorium on evictions to protect women’s rights during the pandemic.

Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit