Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



THEME: Inheritance practices can increase food insecurity among widows and their dependent children.

The poverty-oriented gender approach is best implemented on the basis of a good understanding of the target groups. Information on different sub-groups of women is one aspect. Households headed by widows often represent one of the poorest sub-groups in both Africa and Asia. The situation of rural widows and their dependents in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Uganda illustrates the point. Their poverty needs to be understood in terms of inheritance laws and customary land tenure.

Under customary law it is assumed that the welfare of widows and their children will be taken care of by the deceased’s kin. In Uganda, for instance, when there is no will, a widow is allowed only 25% of the estate of the deceased husband. All children, even if they are illegitimate, are entitled to 75%. In theory this applies to girls as well as to boys. However, reports indicate that, in practice, female children may often not inherit.

When husbands do make a will, the general tendency is to leave their property to their children. A study conducted in 2000 under IFAD’s Gender Strengthening Programme in Eastern and Southern Africa found that only 10% of Ugandan husbands with wills left property to their wives in trust for the children. The remaining 90% left it to the children with the stipulation that the mother should be taken care of. However, the study reports that, in practice, often widows are dispossessed of their farmland and other assets. Eventually, many are forced to return to the homes of their parents or brothers. Some become subordinate wives of their deceased husband’s brothers.

A 1998 IFAD study in the Zanzan Region of the Cote d’Ivoire noted a similar pattern. Except for Lobi women, others there have access to land through their husbands, and may have their own plots as well as their own crops on the family farm. Women even sometimes plant tree crops. Inheritance among all ethnic groups, except the Mande, is matrilineal and patrilocal. This means that if the husband dies, his assets are inherited by his nephews on his mother’s side. The wife either marries the heir or returns to her own family, leaving her children. However, if the widow has older children who can help with the farming, she can continue to work the family farm. The women in the study noted that a widow without children was particularly disadvantaged.

A 1998 study by FAO/IFAD in Ghana again found that women’s access to land, as in Uganda and the Ivory Coast, was through their husbands. Widows with young sons may be permitted to keep lands that their husbands possessed, farming the land on behalf of their sons until the latter are old enough to take over. If they have no children, or have only daughters, the women are likely to lose all rights to the land. Apparently, even in the case of widows with sons, the land the household previously held may be reduced, if so decided by the head of the extended family. Widow inheritance now means that the inheriting widow and her children are deprived of any fertile lands that they previously farmed. Apparently these widows are often not well taken care of. Over 70% of participants in a 1998 workshop in Ghana identified the practice of widow inheritance as a major obstacle to household food security.

Recognition of the critical situation of many widows and their families has led to their priority targeting under some programmes. In Uganda, a rural financial services programme implemented by the office of the Prime Minister specifically targets widows along with youth, disabled soldiers, retrenched civil servants and orphans. The intention of the programme was to devote fully 60% of the resources under the scheme to women. While significant access has been recorded in some districts, such as Kibale (55%), overall, benefits to women have been slightly less than intended.

Widows and their dependent children are therefore an important sub-group of women in terms of targeting.

Adapted from:

IFAD. 2000. IFAD’s Gender Strengthening Programme for East and Southern Africa–Uganda Field Diagnostic Study (Draft). Rome.

IFAD - Office of Evaluation and Studies. 1998. Ghana: Mid-Term Evaluation of LACOSREP I. Rome: IFAD.

IFAD - Technical Advisory Division. 1998.. Securite Alimentaire et Problematique Hommes/Femmes dans la Region de Nord-Est. Rome: IFAD. January.