Georgetown Law’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic has helped secure a major victory for women in Tanzania. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women — which monitors the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) — recently concluded that Tanzania’s inheritance laws favoring men violate numerous provisions of the CEDAW treaty.
The decision “is really huge, because it affects millions of women,” says Clinic Director and Professor Susan Deller Ross, who guided clinic students and teaching fellows through the multiyear project. “We’re talking about law … that denies women any chance to own clan land, which is an incredibly important resource in Africa, and it denies widows the right to inherit anything from their husbands.”
Former students in the Georgetown clinic, working with the Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) in Africa, helped petition the CEDAW committee on behalf of two widows and their daughters, claiming that the Tanzanian laws denying women equal rights to inherit were illegal under international law. Ross filed the petition with the CEDAW committee in 2012 in conjunction with the WLAC; it is the first clinic case to go to the committee.
Both widows were denied the right to inherit the estates of their late husbands and were ordered from their homes by their brothers-in-law; their daughters were similarly denied the right to inherit. National laws further establish a preference for men as administrators of decedents’ estates and give daughters and sisters a smaller share of an inheritance than sons and brothers.
These discriminatory laws are “common throughout Africa, and there is some very telling language in the opinion about how vulnerable these practices leave women,” Ross said.
Clinic students also assisted WLAC in challenging the laws before the Tanzania High Court in 2004, claiming constitutional violations. Although the Court recognized the discrimination, it refused to act, and an appeal to a second court in 2010 was stalled for years.
WLAC and the clinic then petitioned the CEDAW committee, which recommended in its March 20th decision that Tanzania grant reparation and compensation to the two widows, align its laws with CEDAW and ensure access to justice by refraining from unreasonable court delays, among other things. “If we can get the government to follow CEDAW’s recommendations,” Ross said, “as to what will happen — it could be very important.”
Former Law Center students who have worked on the case include Pamela Egleston (L’05), Daniel McLaughlin (L’06), Clinic Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow Tamar Ezer (LL.M.’06), Mason Hubbard (L’12), Kate Kelso (L’12), and Clinic Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow Amy Senier (LL.M.’14). In addition, many lawyers who have worked at WLAC — including Scholastica Jullu (LL.M.’01), the organization’s former executive director — are graduates of Georgetown Law’s Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa program, which Ross founded in 1993. The program trains human rights lawyers from Africa who are committed to advancing the status of women and girls in their home countries.