Why rural African women are demanding land ownership (and why they should get it)

Sunday, October 2, 2016 - 23:00

Imagine being a typist without a typewriter, a photographer without a camera, a driver without a car. Women are toiling the land, gathering firewood, water, producing and cooking the food; and yet in many cases are not masters of the land they farm.

Women across the world, rural African women in particular, don’t have secure access and control over land. This is important not just for producing food but in realising women’s human rights. While data can be limited, available information suggests that less than one quarter of agricultural land holdings in developing countries is in the hands of women.

Women are entitled to land primarily on the basis of theirhumanity - their ability to use/feed themselves or others is secondary to this. Our Women’s Rights to Land work in India, Guatemala and Sierra Leone has shown that having secure access to land helps to empower women, both individually and collectively. Women with greater control over land reported that they had increased decision making power and improved social standing within their households and communities.

The act of securing land rights empowers women and builds their collective agency. Campaigning for these rights often includes approaches ranging from raising awareness, mobilisation, legal literacy, filing for claims, and securing access to legal redress. Land is a form of security and collateral for women, building women’s resilience and food security - as well as their social status and dignity.

There are many barriers for women realising their land rights – weak laws or their lack of implementation, patriarchal mindsets, policies, institutions, and a lack of finance and knowledge about women's rights to name only a few. Low access and control of land significantly obstructs women's access to financial assets, including credit and saving, increasingly the likelihood of falling into and remaining in poverty.

There are also deep-seated beliefs in many places and cultures that regard women as property. These beliefs and practices make it all the more difficult for women to claim land as property themselves. Even where laws have changed, these mindsets often remain. Across all tenure regimes there are uphill battles to change these mindsets; of (mostly male) village chiefs to allocate land to women in customary tenure, of families and husbands disinheriting women and girls, or of government institutions deprioritizing affirmative programmes to support women’s access to land administration services. Women’s own lack of confidence or knowledge around their rights can often be another key hindrance.

Whereas the African continent boasts of progressive policies and legal frameworks that seek to enhance women’s rights to land, implementation has too often been weak or even non-existent. In some cases, existing laws and implementation mechanisms have been swept away by new policies without regard for managing the transition itself. As such, these seemingly progressive gestures are yet to result in equitable outcomes for women and men.

Rural women across Africa are mobilising to change these policies, practices, attitudes, behaviours and institutions. They have been gathering in conclaves and rural assemblies throughout Africa to assert their rights. Their mobilisation is gathering momentum with 30 rural women climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on 10 October 2016 and over 250 women will be gathering at the foothills of the mountain to finalise their charter of demands to hand over to African Union as well as their respective national governments.

We'll be sharing the stories of these brave women, as well as supporting their continued fight for land rights.