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Women and Land: An Endless Struggle?

“When she was born, she belonged to the clan, as was the land. One day her father distributed the land among her brothers, and instead of giving her a plot, he gave her a husband. ‘A land given to a woman is a land lost to another family,’ he used to say. One day, the husband decided to marry another woman, and got rid of her. Her family couldn’t take her back to home, and she ended up on the street with her children.”

My mom used to tell me that story when I was a child and I grew up hearing it. Today I am an autonomous woman who can decide what types of crops will be grown or whether to sell or lease the land. In my community, women were not allowed to own property. This changed when members of an NGO came to talk to our chiefs. They explained to them that women are equal to men, and showed them all the benefits of being treated equally and owing our own land.

That may have shocked you. The previous description seems to be referring to an object but is truly about the experiences of many women. In reality, some African women are treated the same way when their ownership rights are flouted. Women have the right to access land, to cultivate it as tenants but they aren’t able to take managerial decisions such as selling or leasing, and this has a direct impact on the control of their incomes.

Main causes

The situation described above is caused by a double land tenure system currently in force in many African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. The result is a lack of harmonization between multiple legal instruments within a single country where customary land tenure coexists with the statutory law system. Even if a State adopts a “women friendly law”, the latter is usually subordinate to customary rules which discriminate against women. Sierra Leone is a prime example of this conflict. Its Constitution (1991) states that “everyone is equal unless otherwise stated by customary law”. This means that customary law trumps all other laws and furthermore ignores fundamental principles of humanity such as dignity and equality. These derisory and ineffective laws infantilize women, deny their legal personality and leave them at the mercy of their fate. Indeed, divorce and widowhood are the two main causes of loss of land as inheritance laws do not consider women as a legal subject. In Kenya, although women have equal rights in inheritance, when a man dies without a will, the transmission of land is governed by customary law.

Ensuring women’s access to property will improve household welfare

The African Development Bank’s new index to measure gender inequality, along with several UN reports, have pointed out a positive correlation between ensuring women’s right to own land and significantly improved household welfare. Indeed, insecure land tenure rights result in high rates of primary and secondary school dropouts, high records of malnutrition, and persistent poverty. In countries where women lack ownership rights, there is an average of 69 % to 85 % more malnourished children1. Conversely, more secure rights reduce the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or becoming sex workers through prostitution and trafficking.

Moreover, social status synonymous with land ownership is a crucial issue for cultural identity and political power2. Ensuring women’s access to property will confirm their place in decision-making processes and society.

In regards to agricultural yields, tenure insecurity actually has several negative consequences such as under investment and under production. Indeed, while 70% of food is produced by women, the quality of their plots of land is inferior to those of men3. One reason is that women are less likely to adopt good practices or invest in their land if they are not certain to make a long-term profit. Another reason is that women are also less likely to set-aside land for fear of losing it during this period of uncertainty.
In addition, climate change poses greater challenges which are around the corner. Disputes over land ownership are expected to increase as resources grow continuously scarcer. Less and less fertile lands combined with steadily worse droughts will put the food security of hundreds at risk, women being the most vulnerable group along with children. We must act because this threat is a problem for all humanity.

Change is happening

The challenge which remains is how to remove an absolute patriarchy from society. Most of the attempts to change patriarchal laws have been hindered by political representatives who are overwhelmingly male. It is necessary to ensure substantial representation of women in decision-making positions. The Forum for Women in Democracy and the Uganda Land Alliance initiated an intense lobbying to include disposals in favor of women’s rights in the Ugandan land reform. As a result, the Parliament voted for an amendment providing joined-ownership by spouses. In the final version, the amendment was omitted and is now known as “the lost clause”.

Fortunately at the international level, governments are already taking women’s right seriously. In Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015, COP 21 will bring together decision-makers from all over the world to discuss climate change and the impact on women. Furthermore, several non-profit organizations have been implementing awareness-raising activities which change cultural attitudes and discriminatory social value systems. These campaigns have also targeted other stakeholders including women themselves by making them aware of the existing law and providing them with legal assistance. Recently, Women’s Legal Resources Centre (WOLREC) organized training for chiefs in Lilongwe on the importance of access to land for women. Results are impressively positive; from now on land certifications will bear the names of both spouses4.

What can I do?

What can a person without decision making powers actually do? The power to effect change is not limited to politicians or UN staff members. Anyone can start raising awareness among social circles, for example: organize a brunch to talk to them about these issues; follow NGOs on social networks and share their work on Twitter; make online charitable donations. Finally, the United Nations has launched #OrangeDay, a campaign to end violence against women (UniTE). People around the world are invited to wear an orange garment every 25th of the month to show their support. Remember, denying a woman the right to own land simply because she is a woman, is gender based violence. I have already bought my orange t-shirt, have you?

Graciela Camacho is currently working with Make Every Woman Count as a Communications and Advocacy Intern. Check out her full bio here or connect with her on Twitter @GraceCamachoS



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