Human Rights

Widows Speak Out Against Inheritance Customs in Uganda


Article Highlights

Inheritance: Part 1 in a Series

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Precious Murungi, 75, is a widow who lives on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Her husband died in 1994 at age 69 after going into cardiac arrest. They had been married for 30 years.

Immediately after his death, she says the nightmare began.


Murungi, who did not use her real name in order to protect her safety, says her husband was from the Mugwere tribe in eastern Uganda. After his death, she says her in-laws told her that she was a foreigner who did not belong. They also told her that she did not have any right to the property that her husband had left behind. She stood her ground and said that she was part of the family.

“‘I am a Mugwere by [virtue] of marrying a Mugwere,’” she says she told her in-laws. “‘You people will bury me. I am not going back home.’”

In the second meeting with her in-laws, they fought her for her husband’s property. Murungi says she didn’t want to fight, so she relented to all their demands.

“‘You really want things?’” she says she asked them. “‘They are your things. You can have them.’”

She says her brother-in-law told her that he didn’t believe her.  

Do you want me to sign?’” she says she asked him. “‘Where do you want me to sign?’”

In the years that followed, Murungi lost everything. Her brother-in-law sold her home, and her stepson sold all the cows and chickens on her farm.

Her brother-in-law also demanded to have her husband’s clothes. Murungi resisted at first. She did not see why she needed to give up her husband’s personal items. But after several years, she grew tired of fighting and gave up his clothes too.

She says her children did not understand how she could remain calm in the midst of terrible mistreatment. Murungi says she told them that she had brought nothing with her when she had gotten married, and she did not want to die just because of things.

Murungi says she believed the law was on her side, but she didn’t seek legal redress. She says she didn’t tell anyone about the struggles with her in-laws because she wanted to protect her husband’s name.

“I wanted to protect my husband’s name,” she says. “I do not know how I survived. We had no savings. Even if we had had [savings], I would not have had access to them.”

Murungi says her husband was firmly against harmful traditional practices in general and the practice of wife inheritance in particular, which was prevalent in his culture. Wife inheritance, practiced among many cultures in Uganda, is when a widow marries a male relative of her late husband so he can keep the property in the family and take care of any children. It is usually carried out with or without the widow’s consent.

Murungi says that when her husband was alive, he warned his relatives not to think of inheriting her after his death. She says her husband had also written a will, but it was not valid because he did not have any witnesses.

“My husband made a will, but he did not have witnesses,” he says.

Murungi says that men need to be made aware of the will-making process. They need to put their wills into writing in front of a witness and update them regularly in order to protect their families after they die.

“Men fear that if they make wills, they will die,” she says. “Even women who have property need to learn to make wills.”

Widows in Uganda say their in-laws block their right to inherit their late husbands’ property and possessions. Various nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, strive to empower widows to receive what they are entitled to after the deaths of their husbands. Husbands can protect their wives through wills, according to Ugandan law, but Uganda’s Parliament has yet to ratify a bill that would outlaw wife inheritance.

Women tend to live longer than men. The life expectancy at age 60 was 17 years for women but 15 years for men in Uganda in 2009, according to a U.N. report.

Women are also less likely than men to remarry after their partners die. In Uganda, 73 percent of men older than 60 were married, but just 36 percent of women older than 60 were married.

Nabatanzi Alice, 35, is a soft-spoken woman who lives in Luwero, another district in central Uganda. She has been a widow since 2007. Alice and her husband had been married for 15 years.

They were both ill when her father-in-law started managing their property. When Alice’s husband died, the management of the property remained the responsibility of her father-in-law, who was also the clan head.

Alice now lives in one room of she and her husband’s house, and her father-in-law rents the other rooms out. Because of her illness, Alice says she has been too weak to fight for the proceeds from the rooms. She says she also hasn’t had time to seek counsel from organizations that help women in her position.

Another widow, Madina Naiga, 43, says sadly that her husband died in January 2011. They had been together for 20 years. They had one son, who is now 14 years old. They live in Wakiso, a district near Kampala.

Naiga came from a Muslim background, but she became a Christian before her husband died. She says her husband was OK with her decision, but that the demands from her father-in-law for her to convert back to Islam have become more intense since her husband died.

“‘We are giving you some time to reconsider converting back to Islam, or else you will leave this land,’” she says her father-in-law told her.

Naiga says she doesn’t know what will happen.

“My husband and I built the house that we are living in,” she says. “I don’t know whether I will stay in this house because I don’t have a land title or legal documents.”

Naiga says that the community where she lives has also not been supportive.

“When I do some cultivation, the neighbors allow their goats and cows to eat my plantains,” she says. “Pigs come into my garden and eat my cassava. Yet I don’t eat pork.”

Dr. Ibanda Hood, a medical doctor in Kampala, says he has observed a number of cases of abuse of widows. He attributes the way widows are treated to bad cultural practices and ignorance of the law.

“Many women in Uganda lack understanding of the legal system,” he says. “Furthermore, some people take advantage of widows because of poverty. People feel that they are entitled to the deceased’s property however distant they are.”

Raising Voices is one organization based in Kampala that has tried to make a difference in the lives of these women. It aims to create systems and environments that fight against practices that negatively influence the way women are treated. It does this by mobilizing community-based organizations to offer communication materials, publications and videos that aim to provoke attitude changes.

Another organization, the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, FIDA Uganda, supports women here using a rights-based approach. Its offices are based in several towns across the country.

The main approach the lawyers in this organization use is called alternative dispute resolution, in which they act as a third party in an attempt to resolve the inheritance disputes. If this fails, then lawyers represent their clients in court.

One lawyer, Rhona Ziwa, says that although women were reluctant to bring cases to FIDA Uganda in the past, this perception has been changing in recent times.

“Women are more willing to bring their issues out in the open for legal redress,” she says.

Uganda Law Society, an organization of lawyers that works to assist the government and the judiciary in using the law to benefit the people, provides free legal aid to widows.

Aaron Besigye heads the society’s Legal Aid Project, which aims to provide legal assistance to indigent and vulnerable Ugandans. He says Uganda’s Succession Act has several clauses to protect widows.

“If a man makes a will, it should be respected,” he says. “If a man leaves his wife out of the will without justifiable reason, that will can be challenged in court.”

But he says that wills require witnesses in order to be valid.

“A will without witnesses is an invalid will,” he says. “It must be witnessed by more than one person and must be dated and signed on every page.”

The constitution guarantees women equal rights and dignity as men, but it does not explicitly outlaw wife inheritance.

The Domestic Relations Bill aims to outlaw the widow inheritance custom, unless the widow enters into the marriage freely. The last Parliament didn’t ratify the bill during its five-year tenure, and the current Parliament, which started its duties in April, has not yet reopened discussions on the bill.