Enhancing women's role in land management decisions

Large-scale agricultural investments impact upon men and women in different ways, yet women's voices and interests are not always heard in decisions about land. An IIED webinar examined how this could be changed.

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Insight by 
Thierry Berger
Thierry Berger is a qualified solicitor and legal tools consultant at IIED
24 March 2016
A woman farming in Tanzania. Efforts are being made to ensure women are less negatively affected by decisions on large-scale agricultural investments than men (Photo: Dirk Musschoot/vredeseilanden, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A woman farming in Tanzania. Efforts are being made to ensure women are less negatively affected by decisions on large-scale agricultural investments than men (Photo: Dirk Musschoot/vredeseilanden, Creative Commons via Flickr)

How can women's rights be strengthened when decisions are being made about large-scale agricultural investments that affect their livelihoods? 

A recent IIED webinar examined how women's involvement in decision-making processes relating to land can be enhanced at the local level, focusing on commercial agriculture and village bylaws in Tanzania.  

The recent wave of large-scale land acquisitions in commercial agriculture has increased pressures on land, impacting on communities' rights and their livelihoods, particularly in Africa. Initial research suggests that women are more negatively affected by this than men but efforts are being made to change this situation.

Be part of the dance

In Tanzania, national agricultural policy encourages large-scale agriculture, particularly rice and sugarcane, especially since the inception of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) in 2010. 

Tanzania's land laws promote equal rights for men and women in terms of ownership of land and make provision for women's participation in land administration and dispute resolution bodies (see the Land Act and Village Land Act of 1999). However, women do not put themselves forward for leadership positions within these bodies to the same extent as men. 

At the webinar, Helen Dancer from the University of Brighton reported that in some villages in Kilombero District, women are more involved in commercial sugarcane production as outgrowers than in some other areas. But few women hold leadership positions within canegrowers' associations or management roles as employees. 

She said that barriers to participation needed to be removed and employment conditions made viable for both women and men. Equally important is a need to change the way that women's potential as leaders is considered.

As the only chairwoman from a canegrowers' association in Kilombero District told her, it is important to move towards a system where we believe women can do it: "Chereko chereko  na mwenye mwana" (You have to be part of the dance).

Reform 'gender blind' village bylaws

Naseku Kisambu from the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA) described TAWLA's work to increase women's participation in local land governance. While Tanzanian national land legislation is progressive, this is not so at the local level where 'gender blind' bylaws apply. These tend to discriminate against women.

Working with the World Resource Institute (WRI) and the Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT) in Tanzania, TAWLA developed a tool designed to encourage women's involvement in village bylaws to support a more gender-balanced regulatory framework.

Identifying flaws in the bylaws

TAWLA first consulted the community to identify gaps in the bylaws. They talked to local government leaders at the district level, as well as to women, and identified several features that could help increase women's participation in local land governance.

These included gender quotas for leadership positions in the village council, village committee and village land council, for example, and equal representation of men and women in village councils and committees.

Consultation and adoption process 

TAWLA then held consultations:

  1. At the village level with different groups (including women, men and leaders). A key issues was to understand why women do not attend meetings
  2. With civil society organisations and academia
  3. With government members at the local and national level, with  a particular focus on getting input at the local level from the district council members who adopt the bylaws (see below), and
  4. With village council members.

TAWLA prepared draft bylaws which were submitted to the village assembly, the village council and then finally to the district council, all of which were invited to make amendments.

Getting community and government support

While promoting gender equality is a key feature of good governance (alongside following the rule of law, transparency, accountability and so on), community and government members needed to understand why they should support this at the village level.

To secure support from the community, TAWLA involved members right from the beginning of the project. 

Involving government was more difficult, and TAWLA initially faced a lot of resistance. To overcome this, TAWLA organised several one-to-one meetings with district council members. Meetings with the district executive director, district lawyer, village chairman and leaders of the village council were particularly important.

Despite the advances, ensuring that women do in practice participate in land governance remains a challenge because women need to have time to attend meetings and get involved. 

Scaling up?

Efforts to include women are needed at the national level, as well as the local level. Under the Local Government (District Authorities) Act of 1983, government ministers can make uniform village bylaws for a village or a category of villages. 

To win national support, TAWLA advocated at the national level to have the draft they had prepared accepted as model bylaws which could be adopted in other districts. 

TAWLA is also reviewing other bylaws to identify gaps and introduce a gender perspective including for bylaws relating to land use planning and environmental conservation.

While other countries all have different legal frameworks, there is clearly value in using this approach more widely. Decentralised decision-making processes relating to land could be a pre-requisite for progress in this area.

Thierry Berger ([email protected]) is a qualified solicitor and legal tools consultant at IIED focusing on law and sustainable development.


Slides from the webinar, including a presentation by Philippine Sutz, a senior researcher in IIED's Legal Tools team, can be viewed on IIED's SlideShare site. A video recording from the presentations (available above) can also be viewed on IIED's YouTube channel.