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SIERRA LEONE: Custom Slow To Yield To New Law on Inheritance

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Aug 25 2009 (IPS) - They told her after the 40-day ceremony to mark the death of her husband. M’ballu Kamara’s in-laws said she would be taken care of by her husband’s younger brother. It took her a moment to realise the “care” she was to receive would require that she become his third wife.

The practice of "inheriting" wives is entrenched across Sierra Leone. But it is also a violation of new laws. Credit:  Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

The practice of "inheriting" wives is entrenched across Sierra Leone. But it is also a violation of new laws. Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

“My husband had about five hectares of land which I had helped him cultivate over the years. We also had a small shop where we sold provisions. And my husband built the house we had been living in,” said the 32-year-old from Makeni, in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province.

“All of these properties have been taken over by various family members of my deceased husband. They said that my children and I will only benefit from the shelter of the house and the proceeds from the shop if I remained in the ‘care’ of my brother in law,” Kamara explained.

“I cannot marry my brother-in-law. I refused. But it was glaring that if I go, I will forfeit everything – even personal effects of sentimental value which I bought with my own sweat,” she said.

“They did not fight with me for the kids so I packed my personal belongings under the watchful eyes of my brother-in-law who had already moved into the house. And I left with my kids.”

The cultural practice of “inheriting” wives is not limited to the Temne ethnic group to which Kamara belongs. It is entrenched across Sierra Leone.

But it is also a violation of the law. The Devolution of Estates Act of 2007 makes provision for surviving spouses, children, parents and other dependents of persons who died, whether or not they left a will.

The Act gives wives and children under customary law legal right to inherit property, reversing the previous situation where if there was no will, property simply reverted to the parents and brothers of the deceased. It also abolishes the practice of “wife inheritance”.

But old custom dies hard: forty-five-year-old Kumba Nyandebo is from Gbane-Kandor Chiefdom in Kono, in the east of the country. Her husband died last year, leaving her with four children.

A month after the burial, his family met and decided to distribute his properties and personal effects among his brothers and sisters; the house of the deceased, and Nyandebo herself were given to his brother, Sahr Missa.

Nyandebo told IPS that she is okay with the arrangement. “I did it for the children. Who would take me now, with all these children and nothing to my name?”

She said she had never heard of the Estates Act and never even considered questioning the dictates of the elders of her family: “That is our custom.”

There are scores of other women in Nyandebo’s village of Gbakodu who have been inherited by their late husbands’ brothers or nephews; she could not think of a single woman who had stood against the practice.

Sierra Leonean customary law, largely unwritten but which forms part of the common law, regulates upon matters including marriage, inheritance, divorce, and property – matters which impact heavily on women. Under Sierra Leonean customary law, women’s status is considered equal to that of a minor.

But in constitutional terms, the passing of three Acts in 2007 – Devolution of Estates, Domestic Violence and the Registration of Customary Marriages Act, often referred to as Sierra Leone’s three gender laws – has uplifted the status of women.

On paper at least. Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Jeneti, is the head of the Family Support Unit (FSU), a branch of the Sierra Leone Police Force charged with handling family issues and gender matters, at Kissy Police Station in the capital, Freetown.

Two years after the passing of the Act, she concedes she has never charged any Devolution of Estate matter to court.

“This is almost the same scenario in other police Stations around the country. The problem is that people are not reporting these matters and the few that come in lose interest as soon as we want to charge the matters to court.”

However she also admitted that there are gaps in police handling of inheritance issues.

Charles Vandy, the coordinator of the National Committee on Gender Violence in the ministry of responsible for gender, children’s affairs and social welfare says police have received some training. His ministry, in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee, had trained female FSU personnel to respond to women and children whose rights to inheritance had been affected.

Vandy says the government is well aware of the conflict between custom and the constitution.

“The only way we can fight as a government is to give the people the information. We believe that when many people especially women and children are aware of their rights under the Devolution of Estate they will stand up and then the grip of this customary laws will gradually loosen.”

The ministry is now conducting a massive sensitisation drive, especially in the provinces, to inform the people who are worst affected about the Act.

Progress may be measured in modest increments.

Kamara, for example, says she knew that her husband’s people could not force her to marry his brother, but she believed they could seize her possessions. She was surprised to learn that she could actually apply to the courts to reclaim what she and her husband worked together to accumulate.

In Gbakodu, Nyandebo is wary. “I am sure our people had a reason to make those decisions… but if the government says it is a bad thing, then they must try to get our people to do the right thing which will benefit us all.”

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