Working with women in Africa -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Working with women in Africa

By Jeanette Clark


Miriam Dube, age 62, is the guardian of five orphans. She and the children lived in a leaking mud house that was infested with mosquitoes and termites. Eventually, the house collapsed from the rains. But in 2009, Habitat helped Dube build a new house that is healthy for the children.


In Africa, poverty has a woman’s face. Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank vice president for the Africa region, made that observation last year while discussing how the current economic crisis affects women around the world.

Globally, women’s individual incomes are falling and the household budgets they manage have suffered substantially due to slower economic growth.

As a response to this crisis, Habitat for Humanity in Africa and the Middle East (A/ME) is designing all its programs to have a direct or indirect impact on women, enabling them to escape the worst effects of poverty and empowering them to take control of their economic reality.

Inadequate legislative protection

The cycle of poverty can be unending for women and their children when they have few resources or opportunities for economic advancement. Unfortunately, in much of Africa and the Middle East, legislative and cultural obstacles to property rights and ownership exacerbate the problem.

Beauty Shibulwani, a widow from Chazanga Compound in Zambia, gets emotional every time she talks about her situation. When her husband was murdered in 1999, she couldn’t spend much time mourning her loss. She was faced with the immediate prospect of losing her home and being forced into a marriage she did not want.

In Zambia, as in many other countries in the region, women have no property rights. Shibulwani’s late husband’s family believed she had no right to her home and claimed it for their own. She was also expected to become the wife of her deceased husband’s brother. She refused.

After a six-year court case, during which time she stayed with a friend, Shibulwani was left with only enough compensation to buy a plot of land. She lived in a tent on this plot for four years, enduring the rain, insects and cold, and ultimately losing one of her children due to the unhealthy living environment.

In 2009, Shibulwani moved into her new Habitat home. That is a happy ending, but many other women in the region still struggle with the realities of property grabbing and inadequate protection.

Understanding women’s rights

“Property rights and women’s rights are closely interlinked,” says Carl Queiros, program director at Habitat for Humanity International’s A/ME area office.

Traditionally, customs in many countries gave women access—if not the right—to land through their relationship to a male family member. Under pressure from extreme poverty and crumbling traditional family structures, customary rules that once helped to protect women’s access are weakened.

Also, without secure tenure, women have even fewer economic options available and are more likely to face homelessness, poverty and violence.

In many countries in the A/ME region, Habitat for Humanity insists that the wife be a co-signee on the mortgage loan. “This helps with the social and legal recognition that she is a co-owner of the property,” Queiros explains.

Habitat also purposely targets women in inheritance and property rights training. Women are given opportunities to write wills to ensure that their property remains in their family if they pass away.

Between July and December 2009, Habitat for Humanity Lesotho directly reached 25,376 people in Lesotho with valuable inheritance rights information. Through this project, 76 legal documents were created—59 wills and 17 civil marriage certificates—all new measures of protection for women and the children they care for from property grabbing in the event of a husband’s death.

Habitat for Humanity Lesotho’s advocacy and inheritance rights project was launched after the government passed the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act of 2006, which finally granted married women the right to formally own property.

“There was a huge gap between legislation and customary law in regard to land ownership and inheritance, and many communities were not aware of these gaps,” says Shadrack Mutembi, national director of Habitat for Humanity Lesotho.

“The (customary laws) provide that when a father dies, the (male) heir shall inherit all the assets that have not been given away, and he shall use those assets with his mother,” Mutembi says. “However, the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act 2006 gives the widow the right to administer the estate after the death of a spouse. Many recent cases are being interpreted through the latter, and hence our response.”

Since the 2006 act was passed, though, many more widows are prevailing in inheritance cases, Mutembi says.

In the A/ME region, the Orphans and Vulnerable Children program is another example of how projects are designed specifically to improve women’s lives. One of the objectives of the program—implemented through Opportunity International in Mozambique, Lesotho and Uganda—is to expand access to microfinance to increase incomes of caretakers to serve the orphans and vulnerable children. Most of these caretakers are women.

In the past financial year, for example, new microfinance loans were made to 6,876 caregivers, 66 percent of whom were women.

Increasing livelihood options

According to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the economic capacity of women is linked to their access to basic services and security of tenure. Secure tenure and a home provide women with a base from which to do business. Often, housing loans in the A/ME region are used to extend or alter properties to include a room or a space that can act as a business premise or used for income-generation purposes such as sewing or handicrafts.

It is a widely accepted theory that women should be the primary focus for microfinance loans. This is because a woman’s status in a household is linked to how well she can enforce command over available resources. Through microfinance, increased ability to tap financial resources independently enhances a woman’s control and therefore her influence in household decision-making processes. Women are also perceived to be better borrowers than men, because the timely repayment rate is higher.

For Beauty Shibulwani, secure tenure means a more secure future. Rather than worrying about where her family will sleep at night, she can use her home as an asset that can be leveraged to gain access to other capital.

Success stories like this one illustrate the impact of programs that specifically target women, crossing both cultural and political barriers to change lives.

Jeanette Clark is the communications coordinator for the Africa and the Middle East area office. New to Habitat for Humanity International, Jeanette worked in the media world as news editor for a daily national newspaper before moving to the NGO sector. Originally from Namibia, she has lived and worked in South Africa for 12 years.


United Nations Commission on Human Settlements
World Bank Online
Quisumbing, A.R. (editor). “Household Decisions, Gender and Development” (Washington: International Food Policy).
Rao, P.K. “Sustainable Development: Economics and Policy” (Princeton: New Jersey).
Tisdel, Clem. “Poverty and Economically-Deprived Women and Children: Theories, Emerging Policy Issues and Development” (International Journal of Social Economics).