Customary Law and the Constitution

The final project that I worked on during my summer internship is to create a database analyzing the extent to which customary law has been incorporated into constitutions from countries around the world. This project is particularly meaningful for me because of my previous job before law school. My first job was at Women’s World Banking, a global non-profit based in New York City right after college. The organization was established after the first UN Women Conference by female leaders around the world to help low-income women to gain financial inclusion.

Around the world, more than one billion women don’t have access to bank accounts. This is often due to stereotypes that women are housewives and don’t necessarily generate income within the household. In addition, customary laws often discriminate against women, making it nearly impossible for women to inherit land. Since land is often required as collateral to obtain credit from banks, it is much more difficult for women to gain financial access than men.

At first, I thought the answer to address these biases is through enforcing anti-discrimination provisions in the constitution. If women cannot gain access to formal credit because they cannot inherit land through customary law, then incorporating an anti-discrimination clause in the constitution may remedy the situation. If this were the case, my hypothesis was that constitutions that eliminate gender discrimination on customary law would probably enable more women to own land. However, through this project, I found that this by itself does not address the problem. For example, Malawi’s constitution explicitly eliminates gender discrimination in customary law on the inheritance of land.  But women still don’t have much inheritance rights because the institutions that enforce the law hold biases against women. Interestingly, I came across an article that said eliminating gender discrimination with regard to property by writing it into the constitution is only the first step. It is also equally important to ensure the legal institutions responsible for implementing the land laws also operate more equitably.  I would like to do further research in this area in the future to understand how to create legal institutions and infrastructure to help remove gender discrimination entrenched in customs.