Nation & World

In Afghanistan, women denied their inheritance now have a champion

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 husband dies.

That was news to many, and dozens of women have been pouring in to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs over the last 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.

The USAID program hopes to run another series of ads in Jalalabad this summer, if it can find the money. The idea, Nadery said, is to erode the widespread ignorance of the law that allows men to take advantage of their female relatives, which they do in the majority of cases in which property is handed down.

The ads and workshops are aimed at educating not just women but 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 immediately 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 doesn’t have to ask her husband for permission, she doesn’t have to ask her father or her brother for permission, she can use it for her children’s education, she can buy a house, she can start a business, anything.”

The formulas for what part of an inheritance one gets from parents or a spouse is so complex that even experts sometimes struggle with the math. For example, in a case where the parents have died and there are two brothers and two sisters, each sister gets one-sixth and each brother gets one-third. The logic behind that is that, in theory, the women have or will have husbands who bring their own property to the marriage, so property ownership will generally balance out.

The formula is different when a husband dies, with the wife getting only a small fraction and much going to the children, if there are any. In practice, though, often the relatives of the husband step in and take all the property to keep it in their family, or demand that the woman marry one of her husband’s brothers, Nadery said.

As in the United States, you can leave a will spelling out exactly how you want things divided, but in Afghanistan few do.

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 your own life. Sometimes the men in the family aren’t aware of the law; other times, they ignore it.

“It all has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t know the law, and it also has a lot to do with greed, and it has a lot to do with the very old traditions that they believe a man should have the power and the woman should not decide,” Saraj said. “That’s not because of disrespect to that particular woman, it’s that the men know that they can get away with it, and they do it."

When those rare inheritance disputes do make it into the legal system, things can get rough.

On a recent day, a middle-age woman arrived at Nadery’s office after a long trip from Herat in the country’s west. Alya Jami needed help.

Two years ago, Jami had sued over her three brothers keeping all the family property when it was handed down nearly two decades ago. She and her three sisters got nothing, and she had to turn to sewing to raise her seven children after her husband died 10 years ago.

“We thought that at least they would give some shares if not all our shares, and everybody was encouraging them to negotiate with us, but they never did,” she said

The property consists of several acres in downtown Herat, and her brothers had built commercial property on it. They are now making $35,000 a month in rent, and giving none of it to the sisters.

Jami said she first considered filing a lawsuit when they offered her $10,000, then after she turned that down, $70,000.

“I accepted, because I had no wish to file a case on my own brothers, but then they didn’t pay, and instead said that they would bribe the judges,” she said.

In March, a judge ruled against her. Jami said that her brothers had produced forged documents in court that indicated their father had sold the property to them.

Now, Jami said, she is hoping to file an appeal in the case, and she wanted advice from Nadery on where to find legal help, and what other agencies she should approach.

Her brothers have threatened her life, Jami said, and she leaves her home only covered by a bhurka, which she normally wouldn’t wear, to hide her identity.

Her attorney, Muftizada, who like many Afghans uses just one name, said he, too, believed the sales documents were forged, and that some of the witnesses he presented in court had surprised him by refusing to testify to anything substantive, despite saying earlier that they would. He said they probably had been bribed or threatened.

Her brothers deny the allegations. “She’s always lying,” Sheikh Ghulam Haidar said in a telephone interview. “I haven’t promised any money for her. Does she have any documents that I have told her that I would pay her? No.”

Other than the size of the estate – the land in question in downtown Herat apparently is worth several million dollars – the case is typical of the issues that women face, Nadery said.

Saraj of the Afghan Women’s Network 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. “That’s why it’s very important to break that first barrier with more people asserting their rights, so (USAID’s) program could turn out to be like that snowball, if you can do that first push, it starts to roll by itself and collects more along with way.”

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader