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Marital Property Rights Change in South Africa

We recently had students from South Africa in our Women’s Land Rights Institute course, and we were discussing the recent legislative changes around marital property.

Marital property is generally the rights that arise in the marriage relationship, and are a very important source of rights to land and property for women, especially in contexts when traditions and customs would prevent women from owning any property at all.

However, until very recently, apartheid-era rules prevented Black women in South Africa from sharing in their family’s property.

After decades of living under this system, Agnes Sithole was on the brink of becoming homeless as her husband threatened to sell their family home without her consent. This inspired her to take legal action which has resulted in reforming marital property rights for Black women throughout South Africa.  

[Photo: Agnes Sithole via BBC News]
Agnes Sithole transformed women's property rights in South Africa by challenging apartheid-era legal rules which prevented women from sharing in marital property.
Read her full story at BBC News >>

It is rare to see a news item on this topic — perhaps this is because many people take the hard-won rights to marital property for women for granted.

Around the globe, rights to property in marriage are relatively new and are intrinsically linked to the belief that a man is the head of the household and therefore acts in the household’s best interests, when this is far from the reality of many people.

In the US, for example, a woman could not take out a mortgage in her own name until the 1970s.

This article detailing Agnes’ experience does a really nice job of explaining the challenges that many women face around the world, when confronted with laws that discriminate against married women, and also about how those laws can have real impact on a woman’s life and opportunity to prosper emotionally and economically.

It also shows the incredible resilience of one woman as she challenged bad laws and helped to pave the way for change for many others.

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