Property Rights in Sri Lanka

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What are legal position on men and women owning land and property?

Sri Lanka’s constitution is non discriminatory on ownership of land, property and/or business ventures. Therefore, both men and women can legally own, transfer, inherit and dispose of land and property and may enter into any economic activity/business or employment as long as it is not illegal or against public policy.

Exceptions to the law

However, there may be inequalities with regards to ownership of land and property under ‘personal laws’ operating in the country. Sri Lanka’s Land Development Ordinance has also been accused of gender bias on ownership of land.

Personal laws

Sri Lanka’s legal system comprises the Roman Dutch law introduced by the Dutch during Dutch occupation of the Island, the British law, introduced during British occupation and also a set of laws known as ‘personal laws.’

Sri Lanka’s personal laws are

  • The Kandyan law:  Applies to all Sinhalese families and their descendents, that were living in the provinces that came under the Kandyan Kingdom at the time the British took over the Kandyan Kingdom. (These families may now be living outside the Kandyan Provinces, but may still opt to use the Kandyan law)
  • Thesawalamai Law:  The personal laws of the Thesawalamai law applies to Tamils of the Jaffna Province ( also called the Malabar inhabitants of the Jaffna Province).

The territorial aspect of the Thesawalamai laws apply to all immovable property (land and buildings) in the Jaffna province - regardless of the ethnicity and religion of the owners.  Under the territorial laws, any land and property in the Jaffna Province owned by Buddhists, Sinhalese or Muslims, would also come under the Thesawalamai laws although the owners are not Jaffna Tamils.

  • Muslim Law: applies to followers of Islam/Muslims living anywhere in the country

If a person lives by a particular personal law, ownership, inheritance, transfer and disposal of land and property would depend on the specific personal law.
For instance, women’s activists say, Jaffna Tamil women married under the Thesawalamai law, are not able to gain full control of their property without their husbands consent. As a result, many war widows, or women whose husbands are missing, have not been able to dispose of, or use their lands to raise loans from banks, because they are not able to get their husbands consent. In such cases the consent of another male relative is required for the woman to dispose of the property.

Land Development Ordinance

Another exception to the general non-discrimination principle of Sri Lankan law, is the section on inheritance, in the Land Development Ordinance of 1935. The Ordinance which is a British law and is applicable to State lands, gives preference to male inheritance where the original owner (traditionally a man), dies intestate. The bias has been reinforced through the custom/practice followed by government officials, of accepting only the male as the head of the household, even in cases where the man is disabled or dead and the woman is the family breadwinner.  
The bias in the Land Development ordinance has resulted in women in the family maintaining and cultivating the land only to be ousted by a male relative at the death of the original (male) owner. Remarriage of a man would also leave his first wife with no claim to the land although the land was jointly cultivated by them.

However, the government has said the entire Ordinance will be amended as it is now outdated and the section on inheritance is expected to amended, where both a man and woman can hold joint ownership of land and any child, regardless of sex, may inherit the land.

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