Blog series probes principles: what works for women’s land rights?

A new blog series featuring voices from East and West Africa will take a closer look at a set of principles we think strengthens women’s land rights. Here, IIED’s Philippine Sutz tells us what to expect.

Philippine Sutz's picture
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15 October 2020

Philippine Sutz is an associate (legal tools team) in IIED's Natural Resources research group

Women using hoes in a crop field in Kilosa, Tanzania.

Women using hoes in a crop field in Kilosa, Tanzania. Access and control over land is essential to strengthen the rights of African women farmers (Photo: Mitchell Maher/International Food Policy Institute via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Land is the backbone of livelihoods for most women and men in rural Africa. It is central to food production and income generation. For women, given their prominent role in food production, rights to access and control over land is crucial.

Over the past 15 years, pressures on land across sub-Saharan Africa have increased due to many factors including the development of commercial agriculture, climate change, urbanisation and population growth. Research (PDF) indicates that those pressures tend to affect women more severely as they have little control over the land that they traditionally use.

Twenty-five years on from the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (PDF), “the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights” (UN Women), awareness of the importance of women’s land rights is higher than ever and global commitments to women’s land rights have never been stronger.

Targets under the fifth Sustainable Development Goal – to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – explicitly refer to women’s access and control over land, and global initiatives such as the Stand for Her Land campaign are on the rise. Yet, there is still no clear evidence or consensus on what strategies most effectively strengthen women’s land rights in practice.

For the past six years, IIED has been working to promote gender equitable land governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Together with our local partners, we have taken stock of the existing legal systems and practices in Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania; we have mapped existing initiatives and tested and developed new approaches to strengthen women’s voices and participation in local land governance processes.

In Tanzania, our partner the Tanzania Women Lawyers' Association (TAWLA) supported the adoption of gender-sensitive village by-laws to promote the participation of women in village institutions – across all villages in the Kisarawe District while in Senegal, IED Afrique supported the participation of women in local land commissions.

Complexities

‘What works for women’s land rights’ has been an open debate among researchers and practitioners for the past 20 years.

Organisations have advocated for individual (or joint) titles as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to strengthen women’s land rights on a global scale. While such tools can make a difference, we have learnt through our work that land governance and gender issues vary greatly in place and time: no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution exists.  

Our experience has also taught us that the ‘how’ often matters as much if not more than the ‘what’. This means that the process itself, for example if it is inclusive and participatory, is potentially more valuable than the outcome of that process – such as the issuance of a title or the creation of a committee. 

Core principles that strengthen women’s land rights

Through our work, we have identified core principles we think can make a difference, independently from the context, the type of land tenure and the outcome. We argue that such principles should be at the forefront of any intervention aimed at strengthening women’s land rights.

  • Women play an active role in decision making on land, both in local institutions and in the household. This means that women have a say in how community or family land is used or managed, such as whether to give it away or what crops to grow on it. 
  • Women (and men) are legally empowered. Often women (and men) have little information about their land rights in relation to national legal frameworks, and ways to exercise them most effectively. This leaves them unable to claim their rights before local or national institutions. There is a need for greater legal empowerment.
  • Women have the confidence to speak out and claim their rights. Even when women know their rights, socio-cultural constraints make it it difficult to claim them. Women must be supported so they have the confidence to claim their rights. 
  • Get men on board – when initiatives benefit all community members social cohesion is reinforced. Communities include both men and women members; men feeling left out from initiatives can lead to intra-community tensions. Moreover, we can forget that men are also facing land governance issues; it is important that initiatives strengthen land governance for everyone. 
  • Ensure local ownership. To ensure sustainability and legitimacy, initiatives need to be locally owned by community members including local and traditional authorities.
  • Strong, participatory local governance systems. Women’s land rights can’t  exist in a vacuum – they need to sit within robust participatory land governance systems. 
  • Women’s groups and their collective action can make a difference. Evidence shows that when women are part of a group or an association they tend to have more agency and power, facilitating their access to land. 

Over the next six months we – with our partners TAWLA and IED Afrique – will explore these principles in more detail through a series of blogs. The blogs will unpick these principles, including how they are implemented in specific contexts.

In the next blog in this series, Ibrahima Dia from IED Afrique will discuss the role played by women’s economic groups in Senegal, while Isabella Nchimbi from TAWLA will later examine how village by-laws in Tanzania can help ‘bring the law home’ and legally empower women. Stay tuned!

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