Women's land rights and Africa's development conundrum – which way forward?

Land rights play a crucial role in agricultural development and inclusive growth, but in many countries in Africa, women lose out from patriarchal legal and cultural traditions. How can these practices be changed to benefit everyone?

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Insight by 
Eric Yeboah
Eric Yeboah is a lecturer and researcher at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana
12 December 2014
Temegnush Dhabi owns a two-hectare farm in central Ethiopia, growing chick peas. "I’m no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful farmer" (Photo: The Gates Foundation via Flickr)

Temegnush Dhabi owns a two-hectare farm in central Ethiopia, growing chick peas. "I’m no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful farmer" (Photo: The Gates Foundation via Flickr)

How can African countries use land policies to ensure agricultural development and inclusive growth? Particularly in countries which are dominated by patriarchal land ownership systems? These were among the key issues facing experts who gathered at the maiden Land Conference for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November.

Patriarchal land ownership systems in many African countries can mean that women are often dependent on men for access to land. While several countries have ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and introduced national laws seeking to address gender inequalities, in many countries, the prevailing customs are often discriminatory along gender lines.

But speakers at the conference suggested that there is renewed momentum to deal with this deep-seated challenge (video) for the following reasons: 

  • It's bad for the economy: Given the importance of agriculture to many African economies, limiting women's access to land or leaving them with insecure tenure effectively prevents roughly a half of the rural population from secure access to their primary production asset. This has major implications for livelihood security and productivity. Across the continent 65% of the active labour force is engaged in agriculture, yet food imports are rising. It is increasingly recognised that more sustainable and more productive land use is dependent upon more secure land access amongst rural women and men.
  • It's about equal rights: The UN Charter of 1945 sees human rights and economic and social development as closely interrelated. Insecure land tenure has implications for livelihoods, dignity and survival. Land rights are therefore human rights. As a result, any practice which allows women's land rights to depend on the will of their male relatives is discriminatory. Changes are needed in cultures to ensure that women can have uninhibited access to land, secure land rights and the power to make their own decisions about land use. Such changes are a cardinal requisite for fostering human rights and democracy in Africa.
  • It's essential to improving governance and inclusive development: Gender mainstreaming and women's empowerment are increasing becoming integral elements of development interventions. Persistent gender-related inequalities with respect to land go against other efforts towards inclusive development and good governance. All interventions on land rights need to therefore address gender inequalities in this area.

Emerging success stories?

Ensuring gender parity with regards to access to land and secure land tenure essentially involves cultural change, and this requires multi-faceted and coordinated approaches. Both governments and civil society organisations have seen some positive developments:

  • Joint land titles: The Ethiopian government introduced land title certification in 2003 with land titles issued in the joint names of spouses. In effect, the land rights of both men and women are recognised and documented. Changing attitudes regarding women's empowerment also requires well targeted awareness raising over a relatively long time period. Such a strategy has helped to navigate the complex situation of issuing joint titles in places where polygamous relationships are common, as in Ethiopia's Amhara and Orioma regions.
  • Statutory recognition of women's land: In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide resulted in numerous female-headed households. The dominant established pattern for patriarchal inheritance, as well as a number of discriminatory statutes, meant that women had limited access to land despite assuming more responsibilities. Reforms have been introduced to eliminate statutory barriers to equitable access to land and other economic resources. The land rights of both women and men are recognised by law and can now be registered – a fundamental step to addressing existing inequalities.
  • Action by grassroots organisations: Civil society organisation (CSOs) have employed various strategies to strengthen women land rights. The Huairou Commission, for example, empowered women to become change agents yielding some dividends in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya. In northern Ghana, Uganda and Zambia, grassroots organisations have successfully mobilised women in to cooperatives/groups, providing training, and also raising awareness of women's land rights at the community level.  These interventions helped create a situation where women were more likely to be able to access land and enjoy relatively secure tenure. Group solidarity facilitates access to credit for further investments in their land, potentially boosting productivity, income levels and ultimately, standards of living.  

Which way forward?

Strengthening women's land rights is a shared responsibility. There is a need to create an enabling environment for land governance mechanisms which support women’s land rights, and governments have a role in eliminating discriminatory legislation, as the recently launched Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa make clear.

Raising awareness

Land-related gender inequalities are culturally created. Therefore attempts to address this need ongoing engagement, targeting a range of stakeholders with messages to encourage the needed cultural change.

In many contexts, women may require support in order to assert their rights. Building partnerships between local NGOs/CSOs, paralegal networks and other legal empowerment agencies could help with access to training and legal support.

Building on prevailing customs

Although a number of barriers to women's land rights can be traced to the prevailing customs which guide land access, there are emerging lessons from some countries (PDF). For example, where customary land management has been debated at the local level, it has provided a starting point for identifying new opportunities to respond to new pressures on land, leading to progressive laws on equal rights to develop gender sensitive interventions.

In Ghana, efforts have been made to strengthen women's land rights by developing model templates that should improve the security of access by women to both land they have acquired in their own right, and family land – securing a woman's situation, should she become widowed. In Mali, local conventions are being developed that strengthen the voice of women in family land management decisions so that land cannot be alienated without their input.

It is still early days for these interventions, so impacts are not yet clear. Nonetheless, they are promising innovations which may have the potential to improve women's land rights.

More IIED projects on gender and land

About the author

Eric Yeboah (eryckyeboah@yahoo.com) is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Land Economy of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana

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