African cultures have long withheld the tradition that heralds the firstborn son as the rightful heir to the family inheritance. Such practices exclude girl children from birth and feed them the notion that their worth is based on gender. Nigeria is a country that subscribes to this tradition. It is believed and enforced that when a woman gets married, she no longer belongs to her father’s family but her husband’s. For centuries this belief has caused women to become outliers in their own families and opened windows of opportunities for discrimination and abuse. However, a new bill has gone against the grain. A brand new law has been signed to strengthen women’s property inheritance rights in River State, southern Nigeria.
In most Igbo families, property left by the father is divided among the boys from the eldest to the youngest. Women are often only allowed to inherit their matriarch’s property, not any land or estate. This has led to an internalisation of this sexist rule as there are concerns that if a woman is allowed to own land, her marriage will give her husband access to her family’s land. Men are allowed to keep the wealth to preserve the family’s fortune. Therefore, the property is given to men as it is believed that they’re better suited to do so as they are the ones that carry the bloodline.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Nisom Waikh, stipulating that women have inheritance rights and are legally permitted to dispute family members in court should they bar them from laying claim. “I don’t know why it’s a taboo; because you’re a girl, because this is a woman, you’re not entitled to inherit what belongs to your father,” he said, “It is not you who decides whether you will have a girl or you’ll have a boy, it is God.”
“If you are telling a girl that she cannot share of her parents’ estate, it means you are telling her that she does not belong here,” commented Egodi Igwe of the Women Aid Collective (WACOL). WACOL is an NGO that provides free legal representation to women challenging renunciations in court. “It’s very difficult for change to happen at that setting as long as men are dominating in such political spheres. If there must be change, women must be part of the decision-making bodies.”
The Nigerian Constitution prohibits this type of discrimination. However, many families still practice the tradition. In 2014, the case of Ukeje & Anor v Ukeje was concluded after lasting 20 years. Ukeje took her family to court for disinheriting her. Ukeje won the case, and Lord Olabode Rhodes-Vivour JSC pronounced that: “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Consequently the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of Section 42 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution.”
Egodi added that the organisation receives hundreds of cases each year. While some women can take their matter to court, the costly court process, such as Ukeje’s
case, can take decades. Furthermore, these women find themselves without familial support, which can take a toll on them and deter them from continuing proceedings.
Igwe Godwin Ekko, king of the Ihe kingdom, is one of the few kings who have abolished this customary law and also has women as members of his council of chiefs. “We believe that men and women are created equal, so to deny them [women] certain things is wrong. In my community women can inherit things, even land. We don’t even allow extended families to collect properties from women who have no sons,” he said. “People said I was going to get into trouble for changing tradition, but nothing happened.”
Change is slowly affecting some of the outdated customs that are still practiced in Africa. Such steps ensure that the future for women will be as equal as possible.