U.S. program aids Afghan women on inheritance


KABUL, Afghanistan — A modest campaign sponsored by the U.S. government has begun tackling one of the most basic problems on the long list that women face here: being robbed of property that they have rightfully inherited.

A 30-day pilot program of television and radio ads and billboards in Kabul province, coupled with an ongoing series of workshops in three Kabul districts and around the city of Jalalabad in the northeast, have begun spreading the word that under Afghan and Islamic law, women are entitled to a share of the property when their parents or husbands die.


That was news to many, and dozens of women have been pouring in to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs over the past few months for help getting their inheritance.

Those taking the even riskier step of filing a legal grievance against male relatives jumped from little more than half a dozen a year nationally to nearly 50 in Kabul and almost 40 elsewhere in Afghanistan in the first few months of 2013, said Fawzia Amini, head of the ministry’s legal rights department.

“This program has had a huge effect,” she said. “I get two or three cases each day now of women and families seeking legal advice on inheritance.”

The issue of women’s inheritance is so complicated — in part because of arcane formulas for how land and other property is divided, and in part because land rights generally have been a thorny issue here — that no aid or civil society group had tackled it seriously until now, said Lida Nadery, a senior official in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Land Reform in Afghanistan program.

The program paid for the ads and organized community meetings on the topic. The entire program has cost less than $74,000 so far, according to USAID. It hopes to run more ads this summer.

The idea, Nadery said, is to erode the widespread ignorance of the law that allows men to take advantage of female relatives, which they do in the majority of cases in which property is handed down.

The ads and workshops are aimed at educating men, too, since those who don’t know the law often simply assume women aren’t allowed to inherit.

“If the women know that, OK, I have this right, but then they go home and their brothers say forget it, the land is ours, then it won’t work,” Nadery said. “It’s important to get the men in the same mindset, too.”

For some workshops, she said, more men than women have shown up. In at least one case, she said, after a man learned the facts he made amends to his sisters and handed over land that was rightfully theirs.

Inheritance is fundamental to improving the lives of women because in cash-poor Afghanistan, land is nearly everything, said Mahboba Saraj, an activist who works with the Afghan Women’s Network. It’s a way to feed yourself, a source of jobs and something that can be rented out for income.

“Owning land is very important because it gives women the economic independence they need, and obviously that’s empowering,” she said. “When a woman has her own money, then she can do whatever she pleases with it. … She can use it for her children’s education, she can buy a house, she can start a business, anything.”

Even when women are aware that they have rights to property, family dynamics prevent many from objecting, said Saraj.

That’s because for the vast majority of women in the country, family is the support structure that keeps them alive. Going against the family is risking that safety net, and essentially their own lives. Sometimes the men in the family aren’t aware of the law; other times, they ignore it.

Saraj remains optimistic that the education campaign will improve women’s ability to inherit property, even if it takes years.

“The way we have seen social change in Afghanistan is that when examples start repeating themselves — the more they see, the more the people accept,” she said.

Source: TimesDispatch


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