Widows in Nepal still need to fight for their property rightDespite legal provisions that ensure widows’ rights to the property of their husbands, implementation has been impeded by societal norms and customs.
Deepa was just 30 when her husband died of blood cancer. They had been married three years and had a 13-month toddler. When the earthquakes of 2015 struck, the house where she was living with her daughter and mother-in-law was destroyed. Deepa knew that her husband had some land so she attempted to get a loan to rebuild her home with that land as collateral. That was when she realised how difficult things can be for a widow.
“My two brothers-in-law and their wives refused to give me the deeds to the land and his citizenship,” said Deepa, who is now 42 and lives in Lubhu, Lalitpur. “I was told that I didn’t have the right to my husband’s property.”
Deepa, who asked that she only be identified by her first name, knew that wives are legally entitled to their husband’s property after death, but she didn’t know whom to turn to and how to go about ensuring her right. With little recourse, she and her daughter ended up at her brother-in-law’s house for two years, doing all the household chores while being physically and verbally abused, she said.
The 2011 census estimates that there are 498,606 widows in Nepal. According to records maintained by Women for Human Rights, an organisation that advocates the rights of single women in Nepal, around 100,000 widows from across the country have registered as members.
Before the 11th amendment to the Muluki Ain, widows had few rights to property, with exceptions under special circumstances. However, after legislative changes, widows’ rights to inheritance have been addressed to a certain extent. According to the 12th amendment to the Muluki Ain in 2007, wives, along with children, are entitled to a share of the property of the husband, even if the husband dies before the property has been partitioned. The 2015 constitution and the new civil code both address widows’ property rights and set penalties for a failure to transfer property to widows.
Despite these legal provisions, implementation continues to be problematic. According to women's rights activists, this is because inheritance is still beholden to societal customs and religion.
According to Lily Thapa, founding chairperson of Women for Human Rights, all too often, progressive laws are not implemented because they go against established customs and practices.
“Inheritance rights are mostly governed by personal beliefs, influenced by personal interests, religion and traditional culture. As a result, widows in patriarchal societies are often deprived of their rights to property,” said Thapa.
In most cases, widows are deprived of their inheritance rights and benefits because their in-laws prevent them from accessing their husband’s documents, said Thapa. And in the earthquakes of 2015, along with their homes, many lost important legal documents such as citizenship and property deeds.
After the earthquakes, numerous widows filed complaints through Women for Human Rights regarding property disputes as they had lost their original documents. Around 50 percent of them said that their in-laws weren’t cooperative enough, said Thapa.
Amisha Tamang, coordinator at Chhahari, a rehabilitation centre operated by Women for Human Rights for widows who have been victims of abuse, said that in some cases, widows themselves choose not to claim property or benefits because they think that family members or society will look poorly upon them.
“These self-imposed barriers are the results of a lack of knowledge that their rights exist,” said Tamang. “In other cases, some widows are simply not in an empowered position to fight for their rights.”
Deepa too was afraid that her demands for property could pose a threat to the family’s integrity.
“At that time, my brother-in-law was a secretary of the ward that we live in. He was a powerful person,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to court, knowing that if I take legal action, I would make enemies with my family and society. I have to live in this society, and I was scared.”
A lack of property can leave widows vulnerable to different forms of violence, say activists.
“Widows are poorly treated minorities in Nepali society. They are often held responsible for their husbands’ deaths and they become more vulnerable to physical, sexual and psychological abuse when they aren’t financially empowered,” Thapa said.
According to her, 80 percent of the widows who come to the organisation to seek their right to property, have been victims of physical, sexual or psychological violence. She estimates that around 80 percent of widows have been deprived of their inheritance rights while only around 11 percent of the women have a home in their name and 20 percent have land in their name.
A lack of access to property ownership and inheritance can result in women’s inability to access credit from banks.
To increase the number of female landowners in the country, the government has discounted land registration fees for women by 25 percent in urban areas and 30 percent in rural Nepal. Thapa further said that single women and widows are eligible for a 5 percent tax deduction on registration fees.
Although the new civil code also addresses widows’ property rights, there are still loopholes that prevent widows from exercising their rights.
“The new civil code states that the widows who remarry have to return the property that they inherited from their deceased husband,” said Thapa. “We are fighting that and have already submitted a memorandum to the concerned committee. If it doesn’t get corrected soon, we will go to the Supreme Court.”
As for Deepa, she has managed to trick her sister-in-law into providing her with her husband’s land documents.
“I worked in my brother-in-law’s home as a maid, doing all the chores. My goal was to win my sister-in-law’s trust,” said Deepa. “I asked her if she could give me the documents so that I could get a loan from the bank to build a home and that once I get the loan, I would return the document to her. I haven’t returned it and I won’t. I need to think about my daughter’s education too.”