Why land rights for women are critical

Seaweed trader Zuhura Mkuko Karo stands outside her warehouse in the village of Bwejuu on Zanzibar island, Tanzania, December 2, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Rwanda are leading the way for African countries guaranteeing women's land rights - but there's a long way to go yet, says agriculture expert Jemimah Njuki

“Why waste land on them?’ This is what the county official told my father, when he decided to divide the land equally among his eight children-his two sons and six daughters.

The new Kenya constitution had just been passed in 2010, and with it, a provision for equal rights to inherit land by men and women. The evidence for why governments should do this is clear. Studies show that land registered under both men and women is more productive because women have more of an incentive to invest in the land.  A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Kenya in 2014 shows that the legal recognition of women’s land inheritance rights has had a positive impact on women’s bargaining power in their households. In Tanzania, women with strong land rights were three times more likely to work off-farm, earned up to 3.8 times more income, and were 35% more likely to have individual savings than those that did not.

While most women across Africa still have no legal rights to land, we have seen several countries make progress toward legal protection through land laws or constitutional changes. In addition to Kenya and Ethiopia, Tanzania recently included the equal rights for women to own land in its draft constitution, and Rwanda has embedded equal rights for men and women to own land in its land reform program.

And yet, despite the growing number of legal protections, and the evidence showing the benefits of land rights for women, many women still face discrimination in owning land and in claiming ownership. This discrimination is holding women back from optimising their productivity and contributing to the economy.  In Kenya, even with the new constitution, only one percent of land titles are held by women with another five percent held by women jointly with men. With approximately a third of households in Kenya headed by women, due to either having never been married or due to death of a husband, this means that even women who are heads of their households do not hold title to their own land.

It is important to ensure that women’s land rights are enshrined not only in law, but are actually upheld in practice. Despite the clarity of the new land law, the chairperson at the county office asked my father to stay in the meeting room after we’d left. They tried to convince him that it was a bad idea to give his daughters land. They said we’d marry anyway, and so giving the land to us would be a waste.

We need to change the gender and cultural norms and attitudes that still prevent women from owning land. This has to happen from the bottom up, with communities and local authorities being at the centre of this change. And there have been successful examples of this shift in attitudes. In Tanzania, a local authority, the Mufindi District Authority in Southern Tanzania, worked with clan elders and women’s rights groups to change the practice of women losing their land when their husbands died or in the event of a divorce. This was then included in the community bylaws to ensure enforcement. 

Thankfully, my father and my sisters understood our rights and we had all read the constitution. But most rural men and women—and even some leaders - are not aware of these provisions. For example, when I was working in the Mtwara region of Tanzania in 2012, many women were unaware of the provisions of the Village Land Act on women’s access and ownership of land. Even village elders that were responsible for allocating land were unaware of these provisions.

Creating awareness and providing legal literacy for women to understand their rights under both formal and customary law is critical. We can do this through more public awareness campaigns and giving women access to free or subsidized legal advice to ensure that women claim these rights and know what legal procedures to follow in the event that these rights are denied to them. In fact, this was a key success factor in Ethiopia’s land reform.  The government launched a public awareness campaign alongside the land documentation program to create awareness especially among women on their rights to land. Over 6.3 million households were involved in the land registration with six out of every ten registrations done either in the name of the woman, or jointly in the name of both spouses.

As my father came out of the county office meeting with signed papers that guaranteed all his children rights to inherit his land, I knew there was hope for the millions of women who have been denied these rights and for my daughter. But I was also acutely aware of how much more we all have to do to make this a reality for them.

Jemimah Njuki is an expert on agriculture, food security, and women’s empowerment.  She is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.  Follow her at jemimah_njuki

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