Widows Weeds: Gender, AIDS and the Agrarian Question in Southern Africa


O’Laughlin, Bridget. 2007. “Widows Weeds: Gender, AIDS and the Agrarian Question in Southern Africa.” Paper presented at the annual conference of Institudo de Estudos Sociaise Económicos, Maputo, Mozambique, September 19.

Author: Bridget O’Laughlin


O’Laughlin argues that a gendered analysis of women’s land access needs to be done in a way that locates women’s land rights “within the debate around tenure reform.” She looks at surrounding issues, such as gendered patterns of migration that are: “reflected in the high incidence of women-headed-households in southern Africa” (O'Laughlin, 4) [...] and rural livelihoods that are heavily dependent on regular remittances. The article addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of property rights and explores the liberal and Marxist approaches to poverty and inequality in southern Africa through summarizing the arguments of key land rights academics.


“The policy discourse on the impact of AIDS in Africa almost inevitable presents the AIDS widow-stripped of her possessions and chased from her land by rapacious in-laws while left to care for her children though ill herself- as an object of moral outrage. The minimum that can be done would seem to be to ensure that she can legally own land in her own name and inherit the property of her husband, to which her labour has contributed”(O’Laughlin, 1)

Liberal “script” for resolving rural poverty in Africa:

“land tenure reform has a central place..combination of state ownership of land and maintenance of communal access under customary tenure regimes in the labour reserves has both the free flow of labour and the allocation of land to the more efficient forms of production…recognizes that individual tenure and the commodification of rights of land have developed within customary tenure regimes in southern Africa. But it does assume that the overlapping property rights associated with such systems impedes security of tenure and thus reinforces poverty, inequality and economic stagnation.” (O'Laughlin, 6)

Statutory law makes much clearer provisions for gender equity in ownership and inheritance of property. The impact of AIDS crisis on women’s property rights:

“the crisis of AIDS has strengthened demands for women’s independent land rights on human rights grounds.” (O'Laughlin, 7)

Marxist analysis and agrarian question:

“whereas liberalism sees the crisis of rural southern Africa today to be rooted in the weakness of liberal institutions, particularly fragmented and imperfect markets, Marxist political economy emphasizes the transformations wrought over more than a century of commodification of land and labour…not the absence of markets but historical forms of inequality that have been integrated into global economy and political order…answer requires dealing with historical dynamic of three independent aspects: accumulation, class and politics…land ownership per se cannot explain poverty in southern Africa ” (O’Laughlin, 9)

“class differentiation crosses the rural-urban divide in ways that affect the ways we see disputes over women’s property rights…it is clear that in the familiar tale of the deprived AIDS widow, both the terms widow and in-laws need to be deconstructed by class.” (O’Laughlin, 9)

The particular position on women reflects their varying positions within this shifting class structure:

“the liberal rhetoric of donor-driven consensus—good governance, rule of law, human rights papered over the lines of class division and rural-urban difference that matter for the relation of different groups of women and men to land” (O’Laughlin, 12)

“The figure of the widow robbed of her land by her predatory in-laws is an ideological construct that embeds a standard neo-liberal proposition—the centrality of privatization and commodification of land—within the liberal language of human rights. It focuses our attention narrowly on gender inequality in inheritance of property, of which the rural poor have very little…titling excludes those who have not…a more exact metaphor for AIDS widow would be widow’s weeds” (O’Laughlin, 13)

“feminist theory has been particularly critical of both liberalism and Marxism for focussing their attention so narrowly on commodified work and public space and ignoring contradictory relations of gender that cut across the commodified/ non-commodified and public/ private devides” (O’Laughlin, 14)

"A consistent theme in all accounts of AIDS widow is “the importance that support from other women of the community in getting by and keeping agricultural production going in times of adversity.  In context of AIDS, pushing for legal enforcement of a strict conjungal model of inheritance of land, excluding the claims of descent group, could easily heighten vulnerability rather than secure women’s livelihoods.” (O’Laughlin, 18)

Returns yet again to metaphor of AIDS widow:

“without income and great endurance, it will be difficult for the AIDS widow even to have her land surveyed, to establish her legal rights relative to those of other claimants, to wend her way through the bureaucratic process of registry …the image of the widow saved by titling from expulsion from her land by greedy in-laws risks celebrating exclusion as autonomy” (O’Laughlin, 19)

“it is particularly misleading to use the AIDS widow as an emblem for the transformative power of private property. The epidemiology of AIDS in southern Africa reflects the patters of what made it a region—an economy and society based on labour migration within and across national boundaries” (O’Laughlin, 20) 


Topics: Gender, Women, Land Tenure, Health, HIV/AIDS, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa

Year: 2007

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