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By Heather Ibrahim-Leathers and Kayla Tsongas
In Nepal, there is a haunting old adage that the day a woman is married, all happiness falls away from her life. This was certainly the case for Sadhana*, a 40-year-old widow from the Newari caste who lives in Kathmandu, the capital. As a child she grew up in a family that was relatively well off. They owned a gas stove and were planning on construction of a new modern cement house—a huge status symbol for a Nepalese family.
Then one day, when she was only 18 years old, her family advised her that she would be married later that afternoon. Throughout the ceremony she cried in terror as her new husband, whom she had never met before, took her away from her natal family. After the ceremony was over, she could never return to her parent’s household, as she was now the property of her husband. After two years of forced hard labor and abuse at the hand of her mother-in-law, Sadhana had birthed no children. She and her husband were getting desperate. Without a male heir there would be no one to support the parents in their old age. More importantly, without a son Sadhana held no standing within her husband’s family. Then one wretched day, the unthinkable occurred. Her husband had been involved in a motorcycle accident on his way to work, and was instantly killed.
Dazed by shock and immersed in grief, Sadhana was incredulous as she found herself expelled from her husband’s home on the very same day of his death. The family had not only taken all of her possessions, but even the clothing off her back. She was categorically denied any claim to his inheritance, with no consideration of the law. Within a matter of hours, Sadhana had become a homeless and destitute widow.
In Nepali society, the inheritance rights of women depend on their marital or sexual status. Traditionally, a woman is only entitled to her husband’s property if she is legally married and sexually faithful to him. A failure on either of these terms, whether real or alleged, results in the loss of her claims to her husband’s estate. Legally, this should not be happening. Nepal has guaranteed equal inheritance rights for widows, but religious and societal norms have a more profound effect on the execution of these rights than the actual laws.
Despite the 1990 revisions to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, which guarantees women the “right to equality” in regards to inheritance (including the daughter’s claim over a father’s estate), such laws have not been enforced. Widows, daughters, ex-wives, divorcees, and rape victims are routinely denied their inheritances.
Recognizing this, the Nepalese government has taken initiative to enforce its constitutional promises. One such initiative is the Country Code (11th Amendment) Bill of 1997, which grants widow’s unfettered access and authority to the estate. The bill also removed the age restriction placed on widows, allowing them to claim property and even live independently of their husbands' families after their deaths. However, a weakness of the bill is that the widow must return the remaining inheritance to the late husband’s heirs if she remarries.
While these legal changes seem hopeful, tradition trumps law. The media has been arguing heavily against the new inheritance rights laws, alleging “The Nepalese society is not yet prepared to embrace equal property rights. Nepalese social structure would be badly disturbed by equal property rights and Hindu religion would be wounded if equal property right is given.” The media has also stated that domestic violence and divorce rates would skyrocket as result of power struggles between the two heads of the household.
Granted, some of these are legitimate dangers. Those who have historically enjoyed the benefits of unbalanced inheritance rights will fight against losing them. But this is a frictional cost of positive change and will dissipate over time as the realities of improved widow’s inheritance rights become generationally instilled. The fear of domestic and societal backlash as a result of revised and improved rights for widows should not be a deterrent to creating and enforcing such amended inheritance laws.
The Global Fund for Widows asserts that this immense discrimination against these women, especially as it pertains to inheritance of property, is a root cause of female head-of-household impoverishment. In fact, according to the most recent studies, at least 47 percent of widows live in horrific destitution. The implications of global complacency towards inheritance rights are of grave consequence. Consider the economic and social impacts of unjust inheritance rights on the widow.
Widows face a harmful set of possible circumstances such as domestic violence, psychological domination, lack of decision-making capability within the family, and forced human slavery. These vices all stem from a widow’s lack of access to financial independence or security.
The second impact is independent identity. In Nepal, the father is considered the legal and natural guardian of a woman’s children, as the only one that could offer legan and financial opportunities to them—undermining the ability of a woman to be seen as full person with agency and citizenship. This effectively annuls her standing as an independent person of the country. Without legal citizenship in her own country, a women without a male spokesperson, may not be entitled to basic human rights such as personal security, health care, and child care. Inheritance rights or even self-determination under this legal and societal structure are quite unattainable.
A woman also has low social preference. This is most clearly reflected in the practice of inheritance, where the widow is denied her rights to property, money, or even the right to live independently. As a result, her children face discrimination in terms of nutrition, health, education, and distribution of family resources. All to often the vicious cycle of poverty starts from widowhood. Such discrimination against this “lost generation” of a widow’s children continues throughout their lives and often takes more than a generation to correct itself.
The controversy emerging from Nepal’s amendments to inheritance laws juxtaposes timing issues: Should this change in laws precede change in societal mindset and mores? The answer to this debate can be found by looking at the history of progressive change in Nepal. It has been found that in many instances a change in law has preceded an attitudinal change. Examples of this are the abolition of slavery, the practice of sati (a Hindu tradition where a wife sacrifices herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), and the age of consent for marriage. All of the aforementioned milestones were accomplished by first changing the law, which in turn heralded the societal change. This gives women and widows monumental hope that their rights will be respected legally and protected socially.
Sadhana, a widow without a male heir to confirm her place in her husbands family, and unwelcome in her own parent’s home, was forced into a life of street beggary for some years. Ultimately, she was taken into an extended family member’s home where she was treated as little more than a slave. Yet Sadhana’s life did not have to be this way. Had her rights to any inheritance been defined, protected under the laws and executed in society, Sadhana may have had a home to live in, resources to sustain herself, and hope of living a happy life with a new husband and family. Nepal’s advances in the rights protection of widows are an important step to rescuing widows from Sadhana’s fate. But without the societal enforcement of such laws, widows will continue to suffer these cultural injustices.
Tragically, Sadhana’s story is not unique. In fact, throughout the developing world, widowhood launches a vicious cycle of discrimination and denial of rights that ultimately entraps a woman, and her children, in deep impoverishment. The Global Fund for Widows refers to this phenomenon as the “Epidemic of Widowhood,” and is dedicated to ending it through its unique economic empowerment solutions and immutable commitment to spreading awareness of this root cause of poverty.
*The widows’ name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.
Heather Ibrahim-Leathers is the president of the Global Fund for Widows, a New York-based organization dedicated to empowering widows through training, job creation, and micro-finance.
Kayla Tsongas serves as an intern with the Global Fund for Widows and conducted interviews with widows in Nepal.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]