Traditionally, women in the DRC gained shares in property through marriage, not inheritance – and today, few realize that this custom contradicts the law. In North Kivu province, one organization is spreading awareness and helping resolve inheritance disputes.
When Salima Salumu’s mother died, she left a large plot of land for her children and ignited a familiar conflict here in North Kivu province.
While Congolese law provides that each child has the right to inherit equal shares of their parents’ estate, Salumu’s three older brothers claimed the family’s 98-acre (40-hectare) holding for themselves.
Because Salumu is married, they reasoned she already had a share in her in-laws’ property through her husband and therefore didn’t have a right to share in the inheritance.
Many men in Rutshuru, like Salumu’s brothers, dispute the idea that women who marry should have the same rights of inheritance as men. Most men and women are not aware that this customary view is at odds with the current law.
Such land disputes often divide families.
To prevent disruption, some women choose not to claim their rights. Others don’t step forward because they are unaware of their rights, and only know the custom that has long benefited their male siblings.
But others, like Salumu, are beginning to challenge their siblings and assert their rights, bringing inheritance cases to local authorities, heads of neighborhoods and human rights associations.
One of those associations is Hommes Visionnaires pour la Nature, or “Visionary Men for Nature.” It was created to raise awareness among local populations about land rights and to help individuals assert land rights under Congolese law.
“The idea of creating the association sprang up in our mind as we couldn’t sit back and allow the continued rise in land inheritance-based conflicts,” says Bujiri Georges, coordinator of the group, which is mediating cases for married women who assert their rights.
The awareness-raising efforts are publicized through radio broadcasts and television programs, panel discussions in different neighborhoods and even door-to-door campaigns.
Salumu says the group’s activities helped convince her to assert her legal rights.
“I initially bought into the belief that I was never meant to inherit a portion in our deceased mother’s estate,” Salumu says. “And you know what? Today, I’ve come to realize that my brothers were wrong.”
The association works in partnership with the government and resolves 15–20 inheritance-related conflicts every month. If the association is unable to resolve a conflict, the conflict is referred for further legal action.
Salumu’s dispute is one of 15 conflicts the association dealt with in April. When the office is apprised of a complaint, the association’s coordinator sends two of its six mediators to collect testimonies.
Salumu’s brothers often refused to answer phone calls from the mediators, and so did not take part in all the stages of the mediation process. But in the end, the conflict was resolved: Salumu received a portion of her deceased mother’s land.
Remy Rubomboza Mangnat, head of the Land Litigation Department’s legal unit in Rutshuru, says women’s inheritance rights are based in articles 755–800 of DRC’s family code. These stipulate that children – both male and female and born in and out of wedlock – have equal rights to their parents’ estate.
“The law prevails over custom, not custom over law,” he says.
Customarily, women were disenfranchised. Muyaga Abubakale, 72, says that in his grandparents’ time a woman could not inherit land and gained rights only by marrying into another family, thus receiving land and a house from in-laws.
He adds that in his village in Nyarutshuru, when a woman lost her parents she received only a loincloth referred to as “kikwembe ya machozi” in Kiswahili, or “the loincloth that helps ease pain,” as comfort.
Salima Salumu’s elder brother, Jacques, now acknowledges that he erred in blocking his sister’s inheritance.
“I didn’t even know that such a law existed, nor what it addressed,” he says. “But with the association’s awareness-raising campaign, I’ve come to understand that all children are entitled to the whole of their parents’ estate in equal shares.”