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A Comparative Analysis of Widow Dispossession in Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 February 2018

Roxana Willis*
The University of Oxford


Widows throughout sub-Saharan Africa may be at risk from dispossession when their husbands pass away. Whereas some scholars view widow dispossession as prevalent and global, others suggest that the issue is less common than claimed. This article contributes to understanding about the frequency of, and reasons for, widow dispossession through an empirical investigation of widowhood in Cameroon. By adopting a comparative method, working with similar groups in both francophone and anglophone regions, it presents preliminary findings. These findings include a higher awareness of widow dispossession in anglophone areas compared to francophone samples. Moreover, notably fewer marriages are legally registered in the anglophone dataset, compared to the francophone group, which may place anglophone widows at greater risk of dispossession. The article then assesses the impact of custom, religion, civil law and common law on the findings. In conclusion, it recommends the need for a holistic consideration of land rights.

Research Article
Copyright © SOAS, University of London 2018 

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DPhil in law (Oxon), LLM in international economic law (SOAS), LLB in law with European legal studies (University of Kent, Canterbury). This work was made possible due to a wealth of guidance and support from Mbinkar Caroline and Mavis Maclean. Research assistance from Pascal, Monique, Andrea and students on the ALL for Cameroon Law Clinic programme was invaluable. Anonymous peer reviewer feedback further enhanced the quality of this work. Generous funders include the Leverhulme Trade Charities Trust, St Edmund Hall, the Ruby and George Will Trust, Soroptomist International, the Rowlett Educational Grant and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). All views and any errors are the author's own.


1 Malawian example: White, S Dispossessing the Widow: Gender Based Violence in Malawi (2002, Christian Literature Association in Malawi)Google Scholar. Zambian example: Owen, M A World of Widows (1996, Zed Books) at 15Google Scholar. Kenyan and Burkina Faso examples: Potash, BWidows in Africa: An introduction” in Potash, B (ed) Widows in African Societies: Choices and Constraints (1986, Stanford University Press) 1 at 35–36Google Scholar. Ugandan example: C Obbo “Some east African widows” in Potash (ed) Widows in African Societies id, 84 at 97. Ghanaian example: Adinkrah, KGhana's marriage ordinance: An inquiry into a legal transplant for social change” (1980) 18 African Legal Studies 1 at 14Google Scholar. Cameroonian examples: Berg, A Land Right, Marriage Left: Women's Management of Insecurity in North Cameroon (1997, CNWS Publications) at 161Google Scholar; Young, KWidows without rights: Challenging marginalisation and dispossession” (2006) 14 Gender & Development 199CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Gordon, RIntroduction: On the perniciousness of inheritance problems” in Hubbard, D et al. (eds) The Meanings of Inheritance: Perspectives on Namibian Inheritance Practices (2005, Austrian Development Corporation) 1 at 17–18Google Scholar. Owen, ibid.

3 Elias, T The Nature of African Customary Law (1956, Manchester University Press) at 2Google Scholar. Allott, AWhat is to be done with African customary law? The experience of problems and reforms in anglophone Africa from 1950” (1984) 28 Journal of African Law 56 at 57Google Scholar. Fombad, CMThe scope for uniform national laws in Cameroon” (1991) 29/3 Journal of Modern African Studies 443 at 445–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 This accords with Guyer's earlier findings: Guyer, J Family and Farm in Southern Cameroon (1984, Boston University)Google Scholar.

5 Action Aid International, Oxfam “African Women's Land Rights Conference final report” (2012), available at: <> (last accessed 16 November 2017). World Bank “Helping women achieve equal treatment in obtaining land rights: Gender in land administration and land certification projects” (2011), available at: <> (last accessed 16 November 2017).

6 Mbuagbaw, T, Brain, R and Palmer, R A History of the Cameroon (1987, Longman) at 18Google Scholar.

7 Thus consisting of larger centralized authorities and culturally heterogeneous units, united by loyalty to a political superior, who was backed by organized force. See Elias The Nature of African Customary Law, above at note 3 at 11.

8 A society with no central authority, but consisting of heterarchical lineage units of equal influence, also described as segmentary societies: Elias, id at 214.

9 This includes two groups arranged directly through the author's existing VSO contacts who were working with rural groups; two further groups were arranged through local non-governmental organizations working with rural groups and two more through the author's personal contacts in the villages.

10 The decision to use a vignette as a common stimulus for eliciting comparable responses was fostered by the work of Mavis Maclean, who recommended this approach during pre-departure discussions about the data collection methodology, and by reflection on the work of Poulter. See Poulter, SAn essay on African customary law research techniques: Some experiences from Lesotho” (1975) 1 Journal of Southern African Studies 181CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 USAID “The DHS program”, available at: <> (last accessed 16 November 2017).

12 Gordon “Introduction”, above at note 2. Owen A World of Widows, above at note 1.

13 An Nso’ woman stated: “When you are there, they keep abusing you. They say you have killed your husband, what are you still doing there?” Another Nso’ woman claimed her house had been burnt down by her in-laws and another woman in the village had dirt and water swept into her house.

14 In Nso’ the two men's groups suggested widow dispossession was rare but increasing; two of the women's groups identified moderate frequency and one women's group noted high frequency. In Mankon, the two men's groups noted dispossession as the exception; one women's group described moderate frequency and two women's groups noted high frequency. In the four Mankon widows’ focus groups, dispossession was viewed as common. In Njinikom, a so-called matrilineal village, all the groups reported a high frequency of widow dispossession.

15 Two men's groups and one women's group noted that widow dispossession could not happen. Six out of the ten groups that recognized widow dispossession emphasized that that it was rare.

16 Pseudonyms adopted throughout.

17 Veronica's experience echoes what several anglophone women predicted might happen to Madam Grace. For example, another widow in a different Mankon focus group explained: “Madam Grace must get a marriage certificate or the family will worry the woman. They will suffer that woman; she will get nothing. The brother will claim the things for himself. Some are left with nothing to sell, the family chop [eat] even the field, and seize all the capital. The man might even be wealthy and he still seizes everything.”

18 In all these focus groups, participants immediately began talking about the problem of widow dispossession, without the need for any prompt. In three of the five groups (one men's and two women's), reference was made to some women feeling resigned to leave for peace.

19 Conversely, in Bafou, four of the five groups did not mention widow dispossession at all; when asked about it three of them denied it could happen (two men's groups and one women's group) and one women's group reluctantly said it might happen, in exceptional circumstances. One women's group brought up the issue of dispossession unprompted, but emphasized that it would be rare.

20 Goody, J Death, Property and the Ancestors: A Study of the Mortuary Customs of the LoDagaa of West Africa (1962, Tavistock Publications) at 286Google Scholar. Kaberry, P Women of the Grassfields: A Study of the Economic Position of Women in Bamenda, British Cameroons (1952, HMSO) at 33Google Scholar. Green, M Igbo Village Affairs: Chiefly With Reference to the Village of Umueke Agbaja (2nd ed, 1964, Frank Cass) at 34Google Scholar. Dah, J Chieftaincy, Widowhood, and Ngambi in Cameroon (1995, Indiana University) at 41Google Scholar. Ajayi, FThe judicial development of customary law in Nigeria” in University of Ife (ed) Integration of Customary and Modern Legal Systems in Africa: A Conference Held at Ibadan on 24th–29th August 1964 (1971, Meier and Holmes Ltd) 116 at 119Google Scholar.

21 Potash “Widows in Africa”, above at note 1 at 17. DD Vellenga “The widow among the matrilineal Akan of southern Ghana” in Potash (ed) Widows in African Societies, above at note 1, 220 at 225.

22 Green Igbo Village Affairs, above at note 20 at 34. Ebi, J The Structure of Succession Law in Cameroon: Finding a Balance Between the Needs and Interests of Different Family Members (2008, University of Birmingham) at 125Google Scholar.

23 Goheen, M Men Own the Fields, Women Own the Crops: Gender and Power in the Cameroon Grassfields (1995, University of Wisconsin Press) at 33Google Scholar. JI Guyer “Beti widow inheritance and marriage law: A social history” in Potash (ed) Widows in African Societies, above at note 1, 193 at 213.

24 Obi, S Modern Family Law in Southern Nigeria (1966, Sweet & Maxwell) at 21Google Scholar. Fleming, CThe nature of African customary law in central Africa” (1972) 10 Nada: The Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department Annual 93 at 97Google Scholar. Regarding land held on trust for family members, see Dillon, RRitual, conflict and meaning in an African society” (1977) 5 Ethos 151 at 170–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brain, R Bangwa Kinship and Marriage (1972, Cambridge University Press) at 34Google Scholar; Goheen Men Own the Fields, id at 112.

25 Goody, EConjugal separation and divorce among the Gonja of northern Ghana” in Fortes, M (ed) Marriage in Tribal Societies (1962, Cambridge University Press) 14 at 40Google Scholar. Kuenyehia, AWomen, marriage, and intestate succession in the context of legal pluralism in Africa” (2006) 40 UC Davis Law Review 385 at 392–93Google Scholar. Nwankwo, O Inheritance Rights of Women in Africa (2001, Fourth Dimension Publishing Co) at 7Google Scholar.

26 Kaberry Women of the Grassfields, above at note 20 at 11–12. Goody “Conjugal separation and divorce”, id at 36. Ardener, E Divorce and Fertility: An African Study (1962, Oxford University Press) at 86Google Scholar. Berg Land Right, Marriage Left, above at note 1 at 157.

27 Henn, JWomen in the rural economy: Past, present, and future” in Hay, MJ and Stichter, S (eds) African Women South of the Sahara (1984, Longman) 1 at 8Google Scholar.

28 Kaberry Women of the Grassfields, above at note 20 at 145.

29 The “wealth in people” thesis: Hopkins, A An Economic History of West Africa (1973, Longman)Google Scholar; Green Igbo Village Affairs, above at note 20 at 33–34; Henn “Women in the rural economy”, above at note 27 at 5; Ebo, CIndigenous law and justice: Some major concepts and practices” in Woodman, GR and Obilade, AO (eds) African Law and Legal Theory: The International Library of Essays in Law & Legal Theory (1979, Dartmouth Publishing Company Limited) 33 at 37–39Google Scholar; Vellenga “The widow among”, above at note 21 at 226; Goody “Conjugal separation and divorce”, above at note 25 at 40.

30 Wiley, L Whose Land is it? The Status of Customary Land Tenure in Cameroon (2011, Redlin Print Ltd)Google Scholar. Schmid, ULegal pluralism as a source of conflict in multi-ethnic societies” (2001) 46 Journal of Legal Pluralism & Unofficial Law 1 at 6Google Scholar. African Development Bank “Cameroon: Diagnostic study for modernization of the lands and surveys sectors” (2009, ORCE), available at: <> (last accessed 16 November 2017).

31 J Webber in Brimah Balogun and Scottish Nigeria Mortgage and Trust Company Lts v Saka Chief Oshodi 10 NLR 36 at 51.

32 Rohde, EProject Rive Gauche Du Noun: This miscarriage of Bamiléké-settlement-projects under French administration in Bamoum (Cameroon)” in Debusmann, R and Arnold, S (eds) Land Law and Land Ownership in Africa: Case Studies from Colonial and Contemporary Cameroon and Tanzania (1996, Bayreuth University) 203 at 204–05Google Scholar.

33 Henn “Women in the rural economy”, above at note 27 at 12.

34 Guyer “Beti widow inheritance”, above at note 23 at 212.

35 Crocker, WR On Governing Colonies: Being an Outline of the Real Issues and a Comparison of the British, French and Belgian Approach to Them (1947, G Allen and Unwin) at 48–49Google Scholar. Dah Chieftaincy, Widowhood, above at note 20 at 23. This is reinforced by Civil Status Ordinance 1981, art 77(2), which states that the husband's heirs “shall have no rights over the [registered] widow”.

36 Leith-Ross, S African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria (1939, Faber and Faber Ltd) at 101–02Google Scholar. Geschiere, PFunerals and belonging: Different patterns in south Cameroon” (2005) 48 African Studies Review 45 at 53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Goody Death, Property, above at note 20 at 333. Owen A World of Widows, above at note 1 at 10–11. Dah Chieftaincy, Widowhood, above at note 20 at 18. Young “Widows without rights”, above at note 1 at 204. This view was also expressed during a question and answer session with the two anglophone Mankon men's groups.

38 Almost half of the focus groups suggested that refusing levirate could be used to deny widows inheritance rights. 43% of the focus groups mentioned this, including, in the anglophone samples, two Mankon women's groups, one Mankon men's group, one Nso’ men's group, one Nso’ women's group and one Njinikom women's group. In the francophone samples, two Beti men's groups, one Bafoussam men's group, and the three Bafoussam women's groups referred to this. Moreover, three francophone and three anglophone legal professionals also mentioned it.

39 This was explained by a francophone Bafoussam woman's group. In response, the woman shook their heads and tutted about the situation.

40 Out of 34 focus groups, only two noted that widow dispossession was part of the tradition: one Beti francophone women's group suggested that it was a traditional choice for families to send the widow away if she had no children; and one Nso’ anglophone men's group submitted that the widow could be sent away under the tradition for “misbehaving” or (as the quietest elder of the group offered) “if she is a witch”.

41 26% of the focus groups mentioned this, including two francophone groups (one male Beti and one female Bafoussam) and six anglophone groups (two Nso men's groups, two Nso women's groups, one Mankon women's group and one Mankon men's group). Three francophone legal professionals and one anglophone legal professional also referred to it.

42 Cheka, CHow law and custom serve to disempower women in Cameroon” (1996) 4 Reproductive Health Matters 41 at 42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 For a full account of succession laws in Cameroon, see Ebi, J The Structure of Succession Law in Cameroon: Finding a Balance Between the Needs and Interests of Different Family Members (2008, University of Birmingham)Google Scholar.

44 Civil Code 1804, art 731; for usufruct rights see art 767. Ebi, id at 101.

45 Id, art 767(1).

46 Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987, sec 22(1). Administration of Estates Act 1925, sec 46(1). Joint and separate property is governed by CSO 1981.

47 In French-sourced law, Civil Code 1802, arts 967–1047. In English-sourced law, Wills Act 1837.

48 Protection from dispossession is provided for in CSO 1981, art 77(2).

49 The author came across no case of a person being convicted of an offence under CSO 1981, art 4(1).

50 Civil Code 1804 (as amended) and the Southern Cameroons High Court Law 1958 (SCHC 1958), sec 15, applicable in anglophone regions.

51 CSO 1981, arts 30 and 44(1)(a).

52 Guyer Family and Farm, above at note 4 at 72.

53 In the francophone sample: two Beti men's groups, two Beti women's groups, all five Bafoussam groups, one Bafou men's group and three Bafou women's groups. In the anglophone sample: all four Mankon widows’ groups, all five Mankon focus groups, and all five Njinikom groups.

54 One Beti men's group, two Beti women's groups, one Bafoussam women's group, one Bafou men's group, two Mankon widows’ groups, one Mankon women's group and one Njinikom women's group.

55 The three anglophone Nso’ women's groups all noted that traditional marriages used to be recognized. One Beti women's group and one Bafou men's group said this could not be marriage. A chief, who acts as a civil status registrar, participated in the latter men's group.

56 Some of these groups were divided on the answer and are therefore noted as half a group. In the francophone sample: half a Beti men's group, one Bafoussam men's group, two Bafoussam women's groups, one Bafou men's group and half a Bafou women's group. In the anglophone sample: four Mankon widows’ groups, two Mankon men's groups, two Mankon women's groups, two Njinikom men's groups, two and a half Njinikom women's groups and all five Nso’ groups.

57 Among those who recognized this as marriage but nevertheless emphasized the need for dowry to be paid were two Beti women's groups and one Mankon women's group.

58 One Bafoussam men's group expressed the former statement and one Bafoussam women's group the latter.

59 One Njinikom women's group and one Mankon widows’ group.

60 The former two expressions were from francophone Bafoussam men's groups and the latter from an anglophone Mankon widows’ group.

61 One Bafoussam men's group made the former comment and one Mankon men's group, the latter.

62 CSO 1981, arts 49 and 12(2).

63 Both francophone and anglophone villages are included, and both men and women's groups indicated as such.

64 Beti women's group.

65 Bafoussam men's group.

66 Guyer Family and Farm, above at note 4 at 72.

67 Bell, J, Boyron, S and Whittaker, S Principles of French Law (2nd ed, 2008, Oxford University Press) at 283–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 Civil Code 1804, art 731.

69 Id, art 817.

70 Id, art 727, read with art 729, although the widow is not specified, as the provision applies to all family members.

71 See section on “Widow dispossession under customary systems” above.

72 Various studies have found the common law to perform “better” than the civil law in corporate matters. For example, the common law is said to provide better investor protection and law enforcement: Porta, R La et al. “Investor protection and corporate governance” (2000) 58 Journal of Financial Economics 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and to lead to better developed creditor markets: R La Porta et al “Law and finance” (1996, National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 5661), available at: <> (last accessed 16 November 2017). For a critique of the former methodology, see M Siems “What does not work in comparing securities laws: A critique on La Porta et al's methodology” (2005) International Company and Commercial Law Review 300. Porta, R La et al. “Legal determinants of external finance” (1997) 2 Journal of Finance 1131CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Regarding better developed banking sectors, see Levine, RThe legal environment, banks, and long-run economic growth” (1998) 30 Journal of Money Credit & Banking 596CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Collins, RProblem IV: Assimilation and association and French colonial rule in Africa” in Collins, RO (ed) Problems in the History of Colonial Africa, 1860–1960 (1970, Prentice-Hall) 161 at 161–62Google Scholar. R Betts “The ideal and the reality of assimilation and association” in Collins (ed) id, 191. N Akpan “Epitaph to indirect rule” in Collins (ed) id, 147. J Fitzpatrick “Nigeria's curse: Indirect rule” in Collins (ed) id, 118 at 119. Collins “Problem III: Indirect rule in theory and practice” in Collins (ed) id, 83 at 86.

74 Collins “Problem IV”, id at 161–62. Betts “The ideal and the reality”, id at 191. Akpan “Epitaph”, id at 429. Fitzpatrick “Nigeria's curse”, id at 86.

75 For DHS figures of a 30% polygamy rate, see Measure DHS “Cameroon 2004 DHS final report (French)” (2004), available at: <> (last accessed 27 December 2017). As per DHS data, approximately 73% of people declared themselves to follow some denomination of Christianity, 18% Islam and 9% other religions such as Animism.

76 Crocker On Governing Colonies, above at note 35 at 48–49. Dah Chieftaincy, Widowhood, above at note 20 at 23. This is reinforced by CSO 1981, art 77(2), which states that the husband's heirs “shall have no rights over the [registered] widow”.

77 One Njinikom women's group.

78 One Mankon men's group.

79 Anglophone: one Kumbo men's group and one women's group; three Njinikom women's groups; all five Mankon focus groups; and two Mankon widows’ groups. Francophone: one Bafoussam women's group; one Beti men's group and two women's groups; one Bafou men's group; and two women's groups.

80 One men's group and one women's group.

81 See also Liz Wiley's influential work in this area: Wiley Whose Land is it, above at note 30.