"In many communities, customary law is used as a tool to deny women their rights to housing, property, land, and inheritance."
By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, Sept 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An indigenous woman in northern India is taking her fight for inheritance rights to the country's top court, leading others who are pushing back against sexist laws and customs.
Ratan Manjari, who heads the women's rights group Mahila Kalyan Parishad in Himachal Pradesh state, received land she had inherited from her parents - a rare occurrence where she lives.
Indigenous women in the districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti are governed by a customary law that has been in place for nearly a century, which precludes them from inheriting ancestral property unless it is bequeathed to them directly in a will
The tradition leaves unmarried women and widows destitute and dependent on male relatives, said Manjari, who grows apples in Kinnaur.
"I was lucky that I inherited property. But other women are not so lucky, and they have no recourse," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
The Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2015 ruled that tribal women in the state cannot be denied inheritance rights. It said that the Hindu Succession Act, which grants equal inheritance rights, should take precedence over customary law.
But the order was challenged by indigenous men who argued that striking the customary law would result in loss of scarce land, as women marry outside the community.
The order was stayed, suspending the execution of the judgment. Backed by women's groups, Manjari challenged the stay, and the case is now pending before the Supreme Court, she said.
The Hindu Succession Act governs matters of inheritance among Hindus who make up about 80 percent of India's population. But some state laws and religious customs run counter to it.
According to India's Shariat Act, Muslim women are entitled to only half the man's share of property. This is being challenged by women in the courts.
Indigenous women are also demanding that Meghalaya state block a bill that would deny them rights, including the ability to inherit land, if they marry outside their tribe.
Customary laws - aimed at protecting indigenous traditions - are protected by the constitution, and can be hard to challenge, said Baldev Singh Negi at the Integrated Institute of Himalayan Studies in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh.
"It means that the women - who are often not very well educated, and have few livelihood options - can be marginalised further," said Negi, who has studied indigenous people in the state.
All customary laws must be brought in line with human rights principles, said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the Housing and Land Rights Network, an advocacy group.
"In many communities, customary law is used as a tool to deny women their rights to housing, property, land, and inheritance," she said.
"They must be revisited and amended." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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