Q&A: Getting women's land rights recognised

Philippine Sutz describes work under way to help secure land rights for women in Senegal and Tanzania, and explains how accessing land gives them greater control over their livelihoods.

Article, 19 March 2018
Outstanding women in development
A series of blogs and interviews that reflect on the role, influence and impact of women in the field of sustainable development

Philippine SutzPhilippine Sutz is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group. With commercial pressures on land having increased in Senegal and Tanzania over the past 15 years, local communities that have traditionally used this land are losing out. And within those communities, women are bearing the brunt. In this interview she examines legal reform and action to secure land rights for women in Senegal and Tanzania.

Firstly, could you explain what's driving these pressures? 

PS: Both countries have seen a surge in land deal making in recent years. Land is increasingly becoming a source of profit with growing interest from investors and developers. This is particularly the case due to the rise of large-scale commercial agriculture for producing commercial crops such as sugar or rice for national and international markets, but also due to the increasing extraction of minerals and oil, and manufacture of chemical products. These changes in land use often result in land traditionally used by communities being given away. 

Investors tend to covet the most valuable land – for example, in semi-arid areas such as in northern Senegal where irrigation is a challenge, investors will go after land close to rivers as it's the most fertile. Communities are forced to farm elsewhere and finding land of the same quality is a struggle.  

In both Senegal and Tanzania, land has historically been governed, managed and accessed through customary tenure systems where there were no formal titles or rights. Evidence seems to suggest that these systems were quite efficient in governing land well, as long as there were no external pressures. However, today things are different – communities can have their land taken away if they don't hold a formal title or rights certificate. 

But in both countries, laws have been reformed to formally recognise communities' rights to access and use land. Are these laws helping communities keep their land?

PS: In both Senegal and Tanzania, land laws have indeed been adopted to allow land rights to be formalised whereby communities can ask for use and access rights certificates. These laws are designed to provide equal access to land for both men and women.

But implementing these laws is a challenge. In both countries, there’s an implementation gap. Despite having been adopted in 1964 and 1999 respectively, the land laws in Senegal and Tanzania are struggling to make a durable impact on the ground. 

In both countries, implementation is meant to be rolled out by local authorities. However, as local officials often have little understanding and knowledge of the rules in place, there are gaps between the laws and the practice, particularly in rural places. This has implications for communities as whole, but women often lose out the most. 

Why are women most affected?

PS: Although the laws of Tanzania and Senegal entitle women to receive formal certificates recognising their rights, the reality is they're not receiving them. In many cases, women are not even asking for such certificates because they're either not aware of the laws in the first place or because they don't dare request them. When they make formal requests, these are often rejected.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but the fact that the local authorities responsible for making decisions on land allocation are typically dominated by men, who often do not recognise women's rights, is definitely an important factor. 

Women can't own property because women are property – male village council member

I recently attended a community meeting in Tanzania on the implementation of gender sensitive village by-laws with representatives from across different groups. Although the by-laws provide for equal access to land for men and women, one male village council member commented "women can't own property because women are property". That’s an example of the social norms in place. 

So, for women, there are two layers of challenge – firstly around the difficulties with implementing land laws, and secondly around social norms where women's rights are not recognised. This prevents equality for women in terms of access and use of land.

What's being done to strengthen women's voices in land governance at the local level?

PS: Through projects in Tanzania and Senegal, IIED and partners have been working to strengthen women's voices in local bodies that make decisions on land. The approaches vary from one country to another depending on the local context.

In Tanzania, we've been working with the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA) to develop and adopt gender-sensitive village by-laws through a participatory process. The by-laws set out that at least a third of women should be part of the village council that makes decisions on land allocation. Having female members as part of this body means they can bring out the challenges that women face in front of other members and influence decisions on how the land is allocated.  

In Senegal, where the law provides that municipal councils must include 50 per cent of women, we are working with IED Afrique in the rural municipality of Darou Khoudoss to train municipal councillors – men and women – on land law and land allocation processes as well as women's land rights.

Women farmers in Dodel, in Northern Senegal, take a break by the water pump (Photo: Philippine Sutz/IIED)

When working at the local level, it's important that both men and women are involved in activities to ensure cohesion and promote dialogue between all members of the community. It's also important that men and local leaders understand that women's access to land will ultimately benefit the community as a whole. 

How does land allocation benefit women in their daily lives? 

PS: There are two main strands, the first relates to women's economic empowerment. As cash crops are becoming more and more popular for women, land is increasingly seen as a source of income generation. Women are keen to develop farming as an economic activity by locally selling products they grow on the land. 

The second strand relates to enhanced livelihoods and food security. In rural communities, women are often the main food providers. Access to land gives them direct access to water, wood and natural resources. It also enables them to farm to support their families. 

A woman farmer goes back to work in Dodel, Northern Senegal (Photo: Philippine Sutz/IIED)Strengthening women's land rights can therefore lead to positive change not only for the women but for communities as a whole. Not only can women provide their families with more nutritious food but, as a result of economic empowerment, they are also able to pay for school fees, ensuring that their children receive a proper education or for their family to access healthcare when need be.

What's the biggest challenge in getting women's land rights recognised? 

PS: There needs to be a shift in perspective. One of the biggest challenges is around social norms and for local communities to see why it’s beneficial for women to hold land. 

And it's not just about shifting men's perspectives; this goes for women too. As well as getting women's voices included in these decision-making bodies, our work is also about raising awareness among women that they can exercise their land rights. 

In one of the villages where we're working in Senegal, women are quite vocal and are active in trying to get their land rights recognised. But in other communities, I still see many women who do not dare to openly express their needs and concerns in relation to land. So, the shift in perspective needs to happen for both men and women.

Interview conducted by Teresa Corcoran, communications content officer, IIED's Communications Group.