Women struggle to secure land rights

Where progressive laws have passed, things do not necessarily get easier. In Mozambique, civil society groups gained a law in 1997 entitling women to secure access to land and property. “We saw the land law as a victory,” Lorena Magane of the Rural Association of Mutual Support told a reporter. But Rachael Waterhouse, an editor of a report on gender and land in Mozambique, says that while the law was fine in theory, implementation proved difficult because traditional courts, which most rural women use, still consider the man the head of household and therefore the rightful authority over land.

In Ghana the 1985 Intestate Succession Law and the Head of Household Accountability Law were both intended to create greater security for widows and children. If a man died without a will, the succession law decreed that his property would be equally divided and distributed among his widow, children and other members of the extended family. Yet a study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Ghana’s Volta Region found that few women knew of either law and that customary practices continued to determine inheritance. That left many women without access to land after the death of their partner.

Changing institutions

What women need, argues Kagwanja, is for their basic rights to be entrenched in constitutions and for equal rights of property ownership to be clearly stipulated in the law. Where this has already been done, it is necessary to bring all inheritance and land laws into harmony with the constitution, so that they say the same thing. In addition, legal institutions responsible for implementing the land laws need to operate equitably, be friendly to women and extend their reach to the countryside.

“At present,” she says, “we have very centralised institutions. Moreover, it is men who are in charge of the dispute-resolution systems and the court systems are very expensive and intimidating.”

Traditional land ownership systems in particular need some rethinking, she says. Local chiefs authorised to allocate land generally assign it to men. “How do you democratise the systems for allocation of land?” Kagwanja asks. “Do you develop new localised land boards, where you elect members of the land board and insist on a requirement for gender equity, as is the case in Tanzania and Uganda? Or do you democratise the old system? These are some of the questions we need to answer.”

Combating negative norms

Broader cultural change is also vital, says Mwangi. Those who decide land allocations have particular cultural understandings of the role of women.

She spent some time talking to men and women about sharing land ownership. “I think that the men are not ready,” observes Mwangi. “They don’t seem very sensitised to the idea that women can be decision-makers when it pertains to land.” That is a paradox, she adds. “Women’s labour is key to productivity, yet that land is literally out of reach for women.”

Cousins agrees. “To address land rights, you need to address the unequal power relations within families. Unless you change the power relations, the legal definition of who has rights may not make much of a difference,” he says.

Positive developments

There are some positive achievements, however. In Swaziland, women cannot own land because they are considered minors under the law. Yet some HIV-positive women who lost access to land after their husbands died were able to negotiate with a female chief to persuade other chiefs to give the widows land they could use to secure their livelihood.

In Kenya, community watchdog organisations and other groups providing home-based care for those living with HIV/AIDS are intervening. When they encounter property grabbing, they negotiate, mostly with male members of the family, for women and girls to retain access to the land and property.

In Rwanda, the government passed a law in 1999 giving women inheritance rights equal to those of males, overruling traditional norms by which only male children could inherit. This has enabled widows and female orphans of the 1994 genocide to secure land.

Currently, UN agencies such as FAO, UN Women and the UN Development Fund are working with non-governmental organizations to raise awareness among women of their rights and to support efforts to entrench equality of access in national laws.

UN Women’s Africa programme for rural women has several pillars through which women’s role in agricultural transformation can be enhanced. It considers equitable land allocation as critical to such a transformation. One of its strategies is “to strengthen the capacities of the ministries of agriculture to prioritise support to women food production systems in their planning and resource allocation mechanisms.”

One of UN Women’s key messages is, “Rural women play a key role in food production and food security in Africa.” The UN agency encourages governments, development partners and the private sector to enhance women’s rights to land, arguing that “if it benefits rural women, you can call it development.”

This article was first published in Africa Renewal.