Women struggle to secure land rights

Felitus Kures is a widow living in Kapchorwa, northeastern Uganda. Her husband’s death left her solely responsible for their children. To meet their needs, she depended on the small piece of land she and her husband had farmed together. But just months after his funeral, her in-laws sold her husband’s land without her knowledge. “We only realised this when the buyer came to evict us,” Kures explains. She was able to regain use of the land after she got legal assistance with the help of the Uganda Land Alliance, a civil society group that campaigns for land rights.

Cassava farming in Liberia

Kures’s plight is a common one in Africa, although she was more fortunate than most other women. Many never regain access or rights to matrimonial land lost after divorce or the death of a spouse.

Experts report that women in Africa contribute 70% of food production. They also account for nearly half of all farm labour, and 80% to 90% of food processing, storage and transport, as well as hoeing and weeding.

Yet women often lack rights to land, notes Joan Kagwanja, a food security specialist with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an NGO that works with small-scale farmers to promote agricultural productivity. Land rights tend to be held by men or kinship groups controlled by men, and women have access mainly through a male relative, usually a father or husband. Even then, women are routinely obliged to hand over the proceeds of any farm sales to a male and have little say over how those earnings are used.

Moreover, such limited access is very tenuous and can be quickly lost. One study showed that in Zambia more than one third of widows lost access to family land when their husbands died. “It is this dependency on men that leaves many African women vulnerable,” Kagwanja told Africa Renewal.

The spread of HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with the disease have only made women’s land rights more precarious. Widows of men who die from the disease have often been accused of bringing the malady into the family, possibly leading to the confiscation of their land and other property.

In response, activists are fighting to introduce or strengthen laws intended to give women more secure access to land and are combating social norms and practices that stand in their way. Despite many obstacles, they are making headway here and there.

Historical legacy

Researchers with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Washington, DC, note that the marginal nature of women’s land rights is an historical problem in Africa. Before colonial rule, land ownership and access took diverse forms but were largely vested in lineages, clans and families, with male leaders exercising day-to-day control. Members of a particular lineage or clan would seek rights to use land from those community or family leaders.

Except in a few communities where inheritance passed through the mother, land rights were typically only inherited by sons. Women rarely had full rights to land. They were seen as secondary claimants, through male relatives.

Benjamin Cousins, an agrarian specialist who teaches at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape, points out that historically women had traditional protections that ensured continued access even after separation, divorce or widowhood. There also were traditional means of arbitration to which women could appeal if access was contested.

But colonial rule led to the introduction of Western systems of land tenure. In East and Southern Africa, the high number of white settlers encouraged the privatisation and subdivision of land, held under individual freehold titles. In West Africa much land was left under communal forms of ownership, managed by customary leaders.

At independence, some new governments, as in Tanzania, Mozambique and Benin, proclaimed state ownership over all land. In Kenya and South Africa private ownership existed alongside lineage or clan ownership. In Nigeria, clan and lineage ownership coexisted with both state and private ownership, especially in urban areas.

Over the years, rapid population growth has contributed to the overuse of land and to the depletion of soils. This has made fertile land more valuable and increased competition for its control. Such pressures, together with changes in family structures and clan relations, have eroded traditional social safeguards that ensured access by women. So while many land disputes in Africa are still formally governed by customary law, notes Cousins, “many protections of women have not been accurately carried forward” into modern life. Moreover, he told Africa Renewal, today there are many situations, such as cohabitation without marriage, to which traditional norms do not apply. Consequently, “Many women have lost access to land.”

Many African countries today recognise both “traditional” rules of land ownership and Western-type statutory laws. In Nigeria, the state assumed ownership of all land after independence in 1960. Although this weakened customary land tenure, traditional laws still were recognised by the government in areas of long-established clan and lineage ownership. The recognition of Islamic law in Nigeria’s northern states complicated the situation further.

Land titling

One solution that Western development experts initially promoted to overcome the shortcomings of customary law was to give land titles to individuals. Esther Mwangi, a land rights researcher at Harvard University, notes that governments in East and Southern Africa followed the course of land titling, in an effort to ensure that individuals had legal power over their land. This policy was expected to help women secure legal rights to properties that they owned or inherited.

“In the areas where I have been working, the privatisation process has actually stripped women of their access,” Mwangi told Africa Renewal. During titling operations, it was mainly men who got their names on the documents because they were deemed to be the “household heads.” Widows lucky enough to get land were allocated the smallest lots.

Land rights activists suggest that one way to give women guaranteed access to land is to separate formal ownership of land from the ability to use it. Thus, while the land may be registered in the name of a man, he would be barred from selling it without the consent of his wife or wives or other heirs. Ghana has a “head of family accountability law” that is intended to ensure that family property cannot be sold without others being informed, giving consent or benefiting from the proceeds.

“Another alternative would be for land to be put in the name of families or both men and women to have their names on the certificate,” suggests Mwangi. “Where resources such as water, sanitation and grazing land have to be shared communally, then whole communities could be identified as owners of the land, with everyone having equal access.”

Resistance to reform

But such ideas may be easier proposed than implemented. Activists for women’s land rights have tried to have laws passed in many countries, with mixed results. In Uganda, where there was very active lobbying by the Uganda Land Alliance for both men and women to be listed in title deeds as co-owners, the bill came to parliament repeatedly and failed each time.