CHAMHUNDA, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Rosemary Cyprian tried to speak to her sick husband after he was rushed by relatives to their home on the Tanzanian island of Ukerewe, it was too late - he was gone.
His sudden death marked the start of Cyprian’s bitter war with her mother-in-law, Abiya, in which she lost her farm, contact with four of her children, and her peace of mind.
“She told me: ‘It’s customary when your husband dies, you have to leave and go back to your home’. I was shocked,” Cyprian, 41, said as rain pounded down on the roof of her dark living room, its window frames covered with cheap iron sheets.
Even though Tanzania’s constitution guarantees equal rights to own property, customary law which often takes precedence, especially in rural areas, states that widows have no right to inherit from their husbands.
As a result, thousands of women in the East African nation are vulnerable to homelessness and poverty, activists say.
In 2015, a U.N. committee called on Tanzania to amend laws and customs that discriminate against women after independent experts considered a complaint by two widows, who had been evicted by their in-laws following the deaths of their husbands.
“The sad thing is other African countries are starting to do this now but Tanzania is lagging far behind,” said Susan Deller Ross, a law professor at Georgetown University.
“It’s (having) a horrible impact on millions of women.”
Provisions allowing widows to live on their matrimonial property until they die are often violated by in-laws who take advantage of women’s ignorance, fear of social stigma and the inaccessibility of the courts.
“People are misusing culture,” said Eunice Mayengela, a lawyer with a local rights group, Kivulini, describing one case where the husband’s family buried his body outside the widow’s front door to scare her into leaving.
A few months after Abiya ordered Cyprian to leave her home, she attacked her own granddaughter while she was digging the disputed one-acre farm on Ukerewe Island, the largest island in Lake Victoria.
“She took the hoe and threatened to cut my daughter with it,” recalled Cyprian, who was dressed in a faded black T-shirt and green and yellow wrap skirt with her son asleep on her lap.
“I shouted at her to run away,” said Cyprian, who has nine children - eight with her husband, Baraka, and another child from a different relationship.
Cyprian has not stepped foot on her farm in the four years since the attack, even though she and her children are short of food.
Instead, she watches her in-laws harvest cassava, maize and potatoes about 50 meters from her front door.
Seven in-laws visited in November, threatening to cut Cyprian and her children with machetes if they did not leave.
They also demanded she hand over her remaining children, a common strategy in inheritance disputes as relatives living with the children get custody of the estate, said Helen Kijo-Bisimba, who heads Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC).
Cyprian refused. Her in-laws have not, in five years, let her speak to her four children who were already living with them, ostensibly to go to school, she said.
Cyprian is too poor to hire a lawyer, too scared to testify against her in-laws and lacks the necessary paperwork, including her husband’s death certificate and minutes of a family meeting naming their chosen male administrator of his estate.
“If she goes to court, the community will think she is disrespectful,” said John Magesa, a volunteer paralegal with Kivulini who has been informally mediating in the case, as well as educating the community about women’s land rights.
“People would not take it lightly.”
There is no guarantee the courts would support Cyprian.
The CEDAW Committee, a U.N. body reviewing compliance with the international bill of rights for women, ordered Tanzania in 2015 to revise its discriminatory laws after it failed to help two widows made homeless by their in-laws.
Tanzania has not done so.
“It’s violating international human rights law,” said Ross who helped the widows to file the case against the government.
The government wrote to CEDAW in December saying that the high court did not want to “open a Pandora’s box” by declaring customary law unconstitutional.
“Change must start with those who practice these traditions and customs,” it said, adding that the court did not want to risk giving orders that could not be enforced.
Tanzania’s lands minister William Lukuvi declined to comment on whether the government plans to introduce an equal inheritance law, presented to it in 2002 by rights groups.
“The government strongly believes that both men and women have equal rights to use or own land without any discrimination,” Lukuvi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that it has resolved many inheritance disputes.
Meanwhile, Cyprian is waiting to see if her in-laws return.
“I have the right to live here because my husband married me and brought me here and told me: ‘This is your home’,” she said, boiling lemongrass tea for her children returning from school.
“They are mistreating me because I am a woman.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Katy Migiro’s reporting from Tanzania