Getting to the root of gender equal land governance

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23 September 2015

A workshop in Senegal revealed that issues over equal access to land for men and women may not be as simple as they at first seem.

Women farmers in Senegal face challenges over land ownership. A recent workshop looked at how more equal land access could be achieved (Photo: vredeseilanden, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

While there is international agreement that we need gender equality in land ownership – achieving this in practice is more complex.

Women face a number of obstacles in accessing land; these are not necessarily due to low levels of ownership. We hosted a workshop in Senegal to look at how more equal land access could be achieved.

Land and gender workshop

The workshop brought together NGO practitioners and academics from East and West Africa to discuss their approaches to ensuring land rights for women. The discussion promoted different approaches to moving towards equal access and control over land for men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa and revealed the risks of ignoring the realities of land access. 

The workshop highlighted that donors, governments and NGOs that want to address root inequalities need to understand customary law and practice and local governance systems before they start developing projects on land and gender.

Men don't own all the land

In much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa, no one officially has land ownership. Instead, they access and/or control land through a variety of formal and informal practices.

This puts women's low levels of land ownership in perspective and moves attention to new dynamics that are based on social power and having the power to make decisions about land. This can vary between men and women, but also relates to social status and influence. 

What are the challenges for women?

Given this situation, gender inequalities in land governance can be seen as the result of women not being involved in local decision-making processes around land. They are also connected to wider gender discrimination in local or cultural practices, and to attitudes in social hierarchies.

Examples from Senegal demonstrate that traditional practices vary within the country. In certain cases, women can inherit trees for example. But some sociocultural conventions forbid women from having land under any circumstances. Others forbid women from opening their mouths when they witness a land dispute: they must sit on the ground and not speak, otherwise they will suffer misfortune. 

In pastoral societies in Senegal, women are considered as goods to be inherited rather than people in their own right. As goods themselves, they cannot own land.

Focusing on social dynamics

During the Senegal workshop participants shared innovative strategies rooted in community dynamics, legal aid and policy reform which offered ideas for improving women's status for land governance. 

GERSDA, a Malian NGO, shared an example that promoted women's representation in traditional family councils that make land management decisions. This formed part of a wider process to develop shared, locally negotiated rules for land management

NETRIGHT in Ghana demonstrated how to build a representative critical mass lobbying for gender equal policy changes by including the voices of a diverse range of women. 

The way forward

These discussions and examples make it clear how important it is to have a good understanding of the issues at a local level. For projects seeking to improve women's access to land, exploring these local dynamics is key to addressing root inequalities.

Catriona Knapman (catriona.knapman@iied.org) is a legal tools researcher at IIED.

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