WIPR network at the World Social Forum (7-9 February 2011, Dakar, Senegal)

The multi-country network on Women's Inheritance and Property Rights (WIPR) organised panels at the World Social Forum (7-9 February 2011, Dakar), which focused on three key topics:

  1. Countering the use of culture to dispossess women: This panel discussed how the transnational capitalist quest for increasingly scarce resources is allying with local patriarchal interests, and how such convergence is exploiting cultural discourses to facilitate and legitimise the land grab, dispossessing women of homes, land and livelihood resources. The panel showed how, despite the reality of diverse interpretations of customary laws, Muslim laws, and kinship practices, regressive interpretations are selected to serve particular interests. There is thus a need for the cultural legitimation of women’s rights to counter the use of cultural discourses to dispossess women. Speakers included:
    1. Vivienne Wee, Institute for Women’s Empowerment (IWE)
    2. Fatou Sow, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)
    3. Chulani Kodikara, Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) in Sri Lanka
    4. Zahia Jouirou, Maitre de Conférence, Université Tunisienne in Tunisia
  1. Strategies for advancing women’s rights to land: This panel explored strategies that women use to assert their rights to inheritance and property in diverse contexts where they are dispossessed and disempowered. The strategies discussed focus on awareness-raising about rights and laws, capacity building, advocacy, alliance-building and mobilisation. Speakers presented lessons learnt from projects in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, and Sudan. Speakers included:
    1. Josephine Nzerem, Human Angle in Nigeria
    2. Rokhaya Gaye, Réseau Africain Pour le Développement Intégré (RADI) in Senegal
    3. Samia El Hashmi, Mutawinat Benevolent Company in Sudan
    4. Bushra Khaliq from Women Workers’ Helpline in Pakistan
    5. Liah Jawad, Foundation of Solidarity for Justice in Afghanistan
    6. Dini Anitasari Sabaniah, Semarak Cerlang Nusa in Indonesia
  1. Defending women's rights to the commons: This panel focused on the erosion of women’s rights to the commons, as well as the loss of the commons due to disasters, climate change, market forces and privatisation. The discussion explored ways to defend women’s rights to the commons and the commons themselves in the face of increasing threats from various State and non-State actors. Speakers  included:
    1. Ayesha Imam, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)
    2. Zeinabou Hadari, Réseau des Femmes Pour la Paix (REFEPA) in Niger
    3. Doo Aphane, Swaziland Gender Consortium in Swaziland

Following their presentations at the World Social Forum, the WIPR network had its own evaluation meeting on 10-12 February 2011. The main purpose was to conduct a self evaluation on the work on women’s inheritance and property rights as part of the overall evaluation of the programme Women Reclaiming and Re-defining Culture (WRRC). The evaluation process considered what strategies were used, what results were achieved and what makes sense for any future work.

The projects of the WIPR partners were discussed at length. Comments were made by two resource persons.

Summary of comments by resource person Doo Aphane (Swaziland Gender Consortium, Swaziland):

  • A lot of hard work has gone into this programme, including work in challenging circumstances. The contexts of all the projects need to be equally well articulated, taking into consideration political change and how it affected the projects on the ground.
  • The idea behind the project appears to be to compare and contrast, using a methodology of carrying out comparable projects in different continents. That by itself is quite ground-breaking. We need to show how this methodology can work. There is a need to be systematic about inputs, outputs, outcomes across countries. In terms of solidarity, what is the role in this multi-country, multi-continent network?
  • Land is not a soft issue; it is the seat of patriarchy. This needs to be acknowledged. It is a very scarce resource that men kill each other over. Does the promotion of women’s inheritance and property rights shrink the cake for men? The subversive nature of the work needs to be acknowledged. What is the backlash? This is a reality. The backlash is also part of impact of the projects. Which outcome led to this backlash? Death threats are part of the impact, which may affect sustainability. What are the failures? They are important; they inform our future.
  • There is a clear framework that exists. This needs to be articulated better. There is a need for systematic self introspection. The projects have opened debates about controversial issues.
  • How were opportunities grasped? One example is that of working with institutions such as banks so that they can give info about dormant accounts related to estates of the deceased that have not been claimed, or about changing the names of next of kin.
  • The WIPR network is well justified to blow its trumpet more. There is room for more stories of success. There is potential for the women who successfully claimed their rights to influence many more.
  • The aim of WRRC to re-define and harmonize cultures with human rights standards is a long-term process, not a one-off event. How much of this has been achieved?

Summary of comments by resource person Zahia Jouirou (Maitre de Conférence, Université Tunisienne, Tunisia):

  • Everyone should be congratulated on their efforts, including some great work in difficult and dangerous conditions.
  • All the projects acknowledge the need for women to know their rights better, as a prerequisite of change. The question is: how do small-scale projects add up to large-scale changes?
  • The overarching objective of the projects is to institute a change in inheritance law and practice as the long-term goal. This entails change in the cultural domain, change of mentality. It would be interesting to have a cultural observatory to note and document such changes, including whether the image of women as passive and backward is changed. Changing culture is harder than changing the law.
  • The projects need to analyse whether their current focus on the immediate problems of women, arising from the application of laws, lead to the realisation of the long-term goal. What is the relationship between the different short-term, medium-term and long-term aims? These may also be differentiated as:

o    Aims specific to the programme

o    Aims specific for your organisation

o    Aims common to all feminists

o    Aims common for civil society as a whole

  • Broader documentation and analysis that transcend individual projects would be beneficial, including success cases, juridical interpretations, analysis of laws, education of youth, the culture of human rights and equality, the culture of progressive Muslims, human rights culture.
  • Although some prefer not to refer to the religious domain, we still need to have a database of progressive interpretations to counter conservative arguments in Muslim jurisprudence. The strategies need to be appropriate to their contexts.
  • On the socio-economic level, all the projects speak of women who are active and want their rights because they want to be actors in development. This reality must recognized and valued, because these women want more not just for themselves but to support their families and to improve the situation of their community. The wealth of women is for all. This should be included in the advocacy for women’s inheritance and property where the individual property of women actually benefits all. The feminization of poverty is one of the factors of underdevelopment.

There was a plenary discussion to address the question “What, if anything, have you gained or learnt from this multi-country, multi-continent setting? Is it worth the money?”

Some comments made by project partners are below:

  • Bushra Khaliq: The network has always been in email or skype contact. Although the language barrier made it difficult to share all experiences legal and political situations, the face-to-face meetings are an opportunity to share and learn about other countries (especially African countries). It is important to have such meetings. The current meeting was also an opportunity to go to the World Social Forum and get  inspiration from other groups. Even though I was able to read some of the reports, from this meeting I now have a better idea of the programme design and gained a bigger picture. I learnt from the questions, learnt how to design projects and campaigns in a logical, systematic way. I benefitted from two resource persons with good academic and practical background. One commonality shared by most of the partners is that most are Muslims by faith and working with Muslims. But what does Islam or religion mean in different contexts? How do the partners address the impact of the religion – positively and negatively? How do the partners benefit from supporting mechanisms of the network? How can we expand our network?
  • Samia El Hashmi (Mutawinat, Sudan): Through WRRC, I became aware of inheritance and property rights as part of women’s empowerment. This issue is neglected. But it is a global issue like violence against women. The issue is considered as a personal problem, even among lawyers. WRRC enabled Mutawinat (a legal aid org) to expand our scope of work from rape and violence against women to women’s inheritance and property rights.
  • Mahsin Satti Dirar (Mutawinat, Sudan): The meeting has facilitated the exchange of experiences, both successes and failures. We are not obliged to replicate these experiences but learning is there. I got to know many people and to increase my knowledge of different countries beyond stereotypes.
  • Dini Anitasari Sabaniah (Semarak Cerlang Nusa, Indonesia): I’m glad to be here, the second time in Senegal. I’m impressed by the work of partners in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are doing well in horrible situations. Even though the Indonesian situation is better, fundamentalists are becoming stronger there. I feel that we should do something with friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan, although I’m not sure what.
  • Josephine Nzerem (Human Angle, Nigeria): I gained a lot from being part of the WIPR network. It is an asset to Human Angle. Many others in Nigeria are working on violence against women. The issue of women’s disinheritance seemed to be peripheral. Through this network I was able to learn about similar issues in other countries and was able to adapt strategies for my work. It is an eye-opener, learning so much. Even failures are important so that we don’t fall down, but fall forward. The WIPR working group is a true working group.
  • Liah Jawad (Foundation of Solidarity for Justice, Afghanistan): I’m proud to have joined this group. Islamic laws are supposed to provide equality. But everywhere women are victims. The meeting has enabled the sharing of new knowledge and problems. I have learnt about challenges in other countries.
  • Rokhaya Gaye and Khady Seck Niang (RADI, Senegal): This workshop enables us to get new perspectives to take back and share with 540 women in Dagara, including the information and background context. This is useful for moving forward with the project. Learning of similar issues in different contexts enable us to fine-tune strategies beyond awareness raising to further actions. There are many similarities, which is comforting to know and useful to learn about. We benefit from exchanges not just with Africans but also with Asians. We have learnt that the situation in Senegal is better for women than in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This gives us courage to continue the work and to fight the revolution. We want such exchanges to continue.
  • Zeinabou Hadari and Aminata Alhassan (REFEPA, Niger): This network was added value for REFEPA, which is already in the West African network. It gave us more to learn and gain from. There are not many organisations working on women’s access to agricultural land. The multi-cultural framework provides information about strategies, capacity building, technical support, increased publicity about issues in Niger, and access to the World Social Forum. It has been a worthwhile endeavour to be part of the WIPR network – enabling us to learn about different strategies in different places, to recover the life histories of women, to understand how collective demands are being asserted by women in countries like Indonesia, while being open to negotiating opportunities. We would to work like others at this level – in Muslim contexts but with different cultural resources and in different contexts.

Following this, there was a discussion of overall WIPR work – what has been achieved, what is in process, what needs to be completed.

Vivienne Wee (WIPR research consultant and former convenor) started the discussion with a summary of the work of the WIPR. As of 11 February 2011, this included:

  1. Stories about successful strategies (10 completed, more to be added):
    1. Women’s strategies
    2. NGO strategies
  2. Progressive interpretations (not yet)
    1. State laws
    2. Muslim laws:
      i) Local understandings and issues
      ii) Religious texts
    3. Customary laws and practices
  3. Database (130 references & 41 experts/organisations listed)
    1. Annotated list of references (articles, books) & multi-media resources
    2. Annotated list of experts and organisations
  4. WIPR on the Web (not yet)
    1. All the above: stories, interpretations, database
    2. About partners’ projects – web pages from presentations & reports
  5. Book (not yet)
    1. Editorial essay
    2. Literature review
    3. International framework
    4. Comparative analysis of State laws in project countries
    5. Case studies (about the local projects)
    6. Progressive interpretations
    7. Comparative analysis of strategies: successes and persistent challenges

Highlights of discussion:

  • Bushra Khaliq: Apart from success stories, we also have struggle stories. Being right and winning are two different things. Even if you don’t win legally but it doesn’t mean that you are wrong. Our struggle is for ultimate success, not just for the short term.
  • Doo Aphane: You only fail when you stop.

In her presentation, Vivienne Wee referred to the following paradigm of sites of change, as conceptualised by Aruna Rao and David Kelleher of Gender at Work:

Individual change



Domain 1:
Women’s and men’s consciousness

Domain 2:
Women’s access to resources



Domain 3:
Informal cultural norms and exclusionary practices

Domain 4:
Formal institutions – laws, policies, etc.

Systemic change


She argued that concerning women’s inheritance and property rights, this paradigm should be reshaped in a more complex way:

File 1547

What the diagram above tried to show was that the four domains of change are not equally important for all issues. With regards to women’s inheritance and property rights, domain 2 would be the most relevant as that focuses on women’s access to resources, which include, cultural, religious, social, legal, political, economic, organisational and other resources. In the discussion, several points emerged:

  • Dini Anitasari Sabaniah (SCN, Indonesia): The results of strategies used for advancing women’s rights to land may not be linear, if aligned with the Rao-Kelleher paradigm. A more linear impact would be if women directly obtained more land as a result of the use of such strategies. Less linear impacts that resulted from WIPR projects in the various countries (not only Indonesia) include:
    • Knowledge and awareness about the importance of cultural strategies, which can be used to re-claim women’s rights to inheritance of ancestral land, is increased. This then motivates the innovation of more strategies, even if the previous strategies used had not been as successful as intended.
    • Some women’s social status was enhanced as a result of various strategies they used to obtain land – for example, they became members of local councils or were able to change the perspectives of customary and religious leaders, who became their supporters, even if these women did not immediately obtain more land as a result.
    • Other women gained greater knowledge of and access to formal resources to re-claiming the land, such as the land registry, the civil court, or even local and national parliaments, even if such access did not immediately enable them to obtain more land.
  • Vivienne Wee: Both linear and non-linear results should be reported, although a distinction should still be made between these so that it will be known whether non-linear results can and do ultimately translate into more linear results. If this translation does not happen, enquiry should be made as to whether this was due to lack of capacity in some way (for example, institutional or individual) or whether there are certain cultural obstacles that prevent women from obtaining more land (for example, it may be more acceptable for women to have money, either as cash or jewellery, rather than to own land). Such enquiries could then inform the further formulation of context-specific strategies.
  • Samia El Hashmi (Mutawinat, Sudan): It is easier to change domain 4 “Formal institutions – laws, policies, etc.”
  • Ayesha Imam (WLUML): It is also easier to change formal institutions – e.g. a military regime. But attitudes are harder.  

The meeting continued with a discussion of WIPR work as part of larger social movements and the implicit theories of change embodied in the work. Highlights:

  • Vivienne Wee: Our work on women’s inheritance and property rights is not the only work we are doing. So we cannot look at WIPR in isolation but as part of a bundle of rights that have to become part of the agenda of larger movements for social change. That will influence the choices that we make. We are part of different social movements? So what is the added value of our work to these movements? Do we expand the scope of these movements and networks? What are our theories of change? How does change occur?
  • Josephine Nzerem: In our theory of change, communities and women’s organisations are crucial change agents. In our project, market women took the message and delivered it to another market. Human Angle didn’t go to this second market. We imparted a message to one community and charge them to deliver it to another community. They internalized the changed values and communicated these to their own social network. Women’s organisations are also important as they are the ones interpreting women’s problems and implementing strategies to address these. We cannot work in isolation. We need a road map of how we bring about changes.
  • Zahia Jouirou: Perhaps change needs to be considered in relation to our objectives. If we are near the objective, we can steer the change more easily. If the objective is distant, we cannot see it easily, e.g. cultural change. Resources must be adequate for the different trajectories of change. It is also important to focus on authorities – political, cultural, religious. Sometimes the change may not immediately advance women’s rights but may just open a debate on a never previously discussed topic. In that context, feminists should try to lead the debate on socio-political agendas for change.
  • Febe Deug: Beyond multi-media outreach, it is important to have a multi-stakeholder analysis about potential allies in other movements.

The meeting ended with a discussion of: (a) identification of key elements for success, (b) lessons learnt, (c) future work. Highlights:

The following key elements for success were identified:

  1. Quality of people involved: their determination, experience, commitment
  2. Strategic choice of committed project partners with track record of work on the issue on the ground.
  3. Experience of mentors particularly in training and capacity building
  4. Structure of the network, spanning from the grassroots to international contacts, with a role for everyone
  5. Catalyzed agency with a combination of individuals and groups
  6. Choice of great resource people
  7. Relevance of issues and the theme itself
  8. Politicisation of the issue beyond domestic confines
  9. Communication and sharing, including face-to-face meetings
  10. Quality of coordination – support of the secretariat, convenor and consultant
  11. Transparency and flexibility in management of resources

The following lessons were drawn:

  1. Thinking globally, but acting locally: knowing which strategies can work in all contexts and which only in specific contexts
  2. How to work on a taboo subject and open it up
  3. The necessity of networking and working with allies
  4. The importance of sharing, diffusing and documenting the work and known resources
  5. Changing culture is long-term work
  6. Moving the issue from a discussion in feminist circles to an issue in the public domain
  7. The need to build from a human rights foundation for reforming State laws, customary laws, and religious laws to advance women’s rights
  8. The importance of measuring impact (successes and challenges)

The meeting agreed that beyond the end of the WRRC programme in mid-2011, the work on women’s inheritance and property rights should continue, building on the work that has been done thus far. In this future work, more attention should be paid to the long-term goal of cultural change, to the use of violence as a means of dispossessing women, and to better media access. 

PDF presentation: 

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Bringing Our Work Together - Presentation by Vivienne Wee

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Women Dispossessed by Alliance between Transnational Capitalists and Local Patriarchal Interests - Presentation by Vivienne Wee

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Foundation of Solidarity for Justice (Afghanistan) Presentation

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Human Angle (Nigeria) Presentation

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Mutawinat (Sudan) Presentation

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Réseau Africain Pour le Développement Intégré (RADI; Senegal) Presentation

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Réseau des femmes pour la paix (REFEPA; Niger) Presentation

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Semarak Cerlang Nusa (Indonesia) Presentation

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Women Workers Help Line (Pakistan) Presentation

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Participant photographs