Women’s land rights and Africa’s development conundrum – which way forward?


Temegnush Dhabi owns a two-hectare farm in central Ethiopia,
growing chick peas. “I’m no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful
farmer”. (Photo: The Gates Foundation via Flickr)

How can African countries use land policies
to ensure agricultural development and inclusive growth? Particularly in
countries which are dominated by patriarchal land ownership systems? These were
among the key issues facing experts who gathered at the maiden Land Conference for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in

Patriarchal land ownership systems in many
African countries can mean that women are often dependent on men for access to
land. While several countries have ratified international treaties such as the
Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and introduced
national laws seeking to address gender inequalities, in many countries, the
prevailing customs are often discriminatory along gender lines.

But speakers at the conference
suggested that there is renewed momentum to deal with this
deep-seated challenge (video)
 for the
following reasons:

It’s bad for the economy: Given
the importance of agriculture to many African economies, limiting women’s
access to land or leaving them with insecure tenure effectively prevents
roughly a half of the rural population from secure access to their primary
production asset. This has major implications for livelihood security and
productivity. Across the continent 65 per cent of the active labour force is
engaged in agriculture, yet food imports are rising. It is increasingly
recognised that more sustainable and more productive land use is dependent upon
more secure land access amongst rural women and men.

It’s about equal rights: The
UN Charter of 1945 sees human rights and economic and social development as
closely interrelated. Insecure land tenure has implications for livelihoods,
dignity and survival. Land rights are therefore human rights. As a result, any
practice which allows women’s land rights to depend on the will of their male
relatives is discriminatory. Changes are needed in cultures to ensure that
women can have uninhibited access to land, secure land rights and the power to
make their own decisions about land use. Such changes are a cardinal requisite
for fostering human rights and democracy in Africa.

It’s essential to improving governance and
inclusive development: 
Gender mainstreaming and women’s
empowerment are increasing becoming integral elements of development
interventions. Persistent gender-related inequalities with respect to land
go against other efforts towards inclusive development and good governance. All
interventions on land rights need to therefore address gender inequalities in
this area.

success stories?

Ensuring gender parity with regards to
access to land and secure land tenure essentially involves cultural change, and
this requires multi-faceted and coordinated approaches. Both governments and
civil society organisations have seen some positive developments:

Joint land titles: The
Ethiopian government introduced land title certification in 2003 with land
titles issued in the joint names of spouses. In effect, the land rights of both
men and women are recognised and documented. Changing attitudes regarding
women’s empowerment also requires well targeted awareness raising over a
relatively long time period. Such a strategy has
helped to navigate the complex situation of issuing joint titles in places
where polygamous relationships are common, as in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Orioma

Statutory recognition of
women’s land
: In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide resulted in
numerous female-headed households. The dominant established pattern for
patriarchal inheritance, as well as a number of discriminatory statutes, meant
that women had limited access to land despite assuming more
responsibilities.Reforms have been introduced to eliminate statutory
barriers to equitable access to land and other economic resources. The land
rights of both women and men are recognised by law and can now be registered –
a fundamental step to addressing existing inequalities.

Action by grassroots
: Civil society organisation (CSOs) have employed
various strategies to strengthen women land rights. The Huairou Commission, for
example, empowered women to become change agents yielding some dividends in
Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya (PDF)
. In northern Ghana, Uganda and
Zambia, grassroots organisations have successfully mobilised women in to
cooperatives/groups, providing training, and also raising awareness of women’s
land rights at the community level. These interventions helped create a
situation where women were more likely to be able to access land and enjoy
relatively secure tenure. Group solidarity facilitates access to credit for
further investments in their land, potentially boosting productivity, income
levels and ultimately, standards of living.

way forward?

Strengthening women’s land rights is a
shared responsibility. There is a need to create an enabling environment for
land governance mechanisms which support women’s land rights, and governments
have a role in eliminating discriminatory legislation, as the recently launched Guiding Principles on
Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa
 make clear.


Land-related gender inequalities are
culturally created. Therefore attempts to address this need ongoing engagement,
targeting a range of stakeholders with messages to encourage the needed
cultural change.

In many contexts, women may require support
in order to assert their rights. Building partnerships between local NGOs/CSOs,
paralegal networks and other legal empowerment agencies could help with access
to training and legal support.

on prevailing customs

Although a number of barriers to women’s
land rights can be traced to the prevailing customs which guide land access,
there are emerging lessons from
some countries
. For example, where customary land management has
been debated at the local level, it has provided a starting point for
identifying new opportunities to respond to new pressures on land, leading to
progressive laws on equal rights to develop gender sensitive interventions.

In Ghana, efforts have been made to
strengthen women’s land rights by developing model templates that should
improve the security of access by women to both land they have acquired in
their own right, and family land – securing a woman’s situation, should she become
widowed. In Mali, local conventions are being developed that strengthen the
voice of women in family land management decisions so that land cannot be
alienated without their input.

It is still early days for these
interventions, so impacts are not yet clear. Nonetheless, they are promising
innovations which may have the potential to improve women’s land rights.

(eryckyeboah@yahoo.com) is a lecturer and
researcher at the Department of Land Economy of the Kwame Nkrumah University of
Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana

For more IIED projects on gender and land:

Securing land rights in West Africa

IIED is embarking on a project
exploring and promoting practical approaches to gender-equitable land
governance in Africa
, within a context of increasing commercial
pressures on land

Original source