At its sixtieth session, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women [‘CEDAW Committee’] decided a landmark case upholding women’s equal inheritance rights in Tanzania. The case involved two widows who were prevented from inheriting their late husbands’ property and were subsequently left homeless. The two women, E. S. and S. C. (represented by the Women’s Legal Aid Centre and the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic of Georgetown University Law Center) argued that millions of other women in Tanzania like them also experience similar violations, whether as widows, daughters, mothers or other female relatives of the deceased.
In their decision, the CEDAW Committee highlighted that States parties have an obligation to adopt laws of intestate succession that comply with the principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [‘Convention’], and that ensure equal treatment of surviving females and males. It specifically recalled its General Recommendation No. 29 on the ‘economic consequences of marriage, family relations and their dissolution,’ which expressly mentions that State parties are required to ensure that disinheritance of the surviving spouse is prohibited. It also recalled its General Recommendation No. 21 on ‘equality in marriage and family relations,’ which notes that States parties are required to give women equal rights to administer property. It highlighted that “the right of women to own, manage, enjoy and dispose of property is central to their financial independence and may be critical to their ability to earn a livelihood and to provide adequate housing and nutrition for themselves and for their children, especially in the event of the death of their spouse.”
In the present case, the CEDAW Committee observed that E. S. and S. C. “were left economically vulnerable, with no property, no home to live in with their children and no form of financial support,” and expressed the view that “such state of vulnerability and insecurity has restricted the authors’ economic autonomy and has prevented them from enjoying equal economic opportunities.” It ruled that Tanzania’s legal framework which treats widows and widowers differently in terms of ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, “is discriminatory and thereby amounts to a violation of article 2 (f) in conjunction with articles 5, 15 and 16 of the Convention.” It held that Tanzania should grant E. S. and S. C. appropriate reparation and adequate compensation commensurate with the seriousness of the infringement of their rights, and that Tanzania should ensure that all discriminatory customary laws limiting women’s equal inheritance rights are repealed or amended and brought into full compliance with the Convention.