Why the African Union’s pledge to advance women’s land rights matters

A young girl winnows cereals in the village of Koure in the south of Niger September 2, 2006. Torrential rains have left at least 17,000 people homeless in the north and southeast of Niger, according to authorities who have appealed for urgent assistance. Picture taken September 2, 2006. REUTERS/Florin Iorganda

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The benefits of women’s land rights are clear but acheiving 30 percent female ownership across Africa will not be easy, says Susan Markham of USAID

Earlier this year, the African Union made a groundbreaking pledge: by 2025, thirty percent of land in Africa will be allocated to women—and documented in their names.

Why does this matter?

Land is the most critical economic resource for most of the world’s rural poor. Throughout much of the developing world, women are at a severe disadvantage: they have less access, control, and ownership of this key asset. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women make up about half of the agricultural labor force, but hold only 15 percent of the agricultural land.

When women cannot control or access land, their economic opportunities are limited and they are vulnerable to poverty, hunger, gender-based violence, and displacement. Without land rights, women often lack the incentives to make long-term improvements to the land and have greater difficulty accessing credit. And the limited amount of land that women do control is often of lower quality than that controlled by men: it may be far from water sources, for example, or located on steep inclines.

Conversely, when women do have secure land rights, they tend to invest in improvements to their property, participate in land rental markets, and earn more income. In Tanzania, women with strong land rights were three times more likely to work off-farm and almost one-and-one-half times more likely to have individual savings. They also earned nearly four times as much income.

While the benefits of women’s land rights are clear, the path to 30 percent ownership will not be easy. In many African countries, a complex set of circumstances constrain women’s access to, and control of, land. This is true both under formal legal systems as well as traditional, customary systems of administering land rights—which are the norm in many countries.

In some places, the problem is discriminatory laws and policies. Thirty-five countries still have laws on the books that discriminate against women’s property rights, either outright or via restrictive inheritance provisions that dispossess women of land if their husband dies. But even where the law provides equal land rights for women, social norms and customs often do not. And all too frequently, women are shamed, shunned, and beaten for standing up for their legal rights.

This is why the African Union’s pledge is crucial. It is a major step toward changing the dialogue. This high-level commitment by African political leadership sends a powerful message that women can, and should, have secure rights to land. While some countries are already taking important steps on this issue, the challenge now is turning rhetoric into large-scale results.

For its part, USAID is supporting efforts to strengthen women’s land rights in 17 countries, through a mix of programs that support legal and policy reforms; awareness-raising and social behavior change aimed at altering attitudes and beliefs around women’s land rights; and technological innovations that makes it easier to map land in remote areas and register property rights for all members of society— including women.

Ensuring that our programs have the greatest positive impact while doing no harm means adapting approaches to both local contexts and unique political and social environments.

In Ethiopia, for example, where the government is the primary authority for administering land rights, USAID has supported a series of government-backed land certification programs that have issued joint land rights certificates to over 130,000 married couples, and individual certificates to over 70,000 women-headed households. These efforts are supported by legal and policy reforms, advocacy efforts, and training, all of which empower new certificate holders to understand and exercise their rights, while building the capacity of local land administration offices to maintain them.

In Zambia, where traditional authorities often play a larger role in administering land rights than the state, USAID is supporting four Chiefdoms topilot an innovative method of recording and certifying customary land rights using smartphone-based mapping tools and participatory methods—involving all community members; men and women.

We still have a long road ahead of us before we reach the point where thirty percent of landowners in Africa are women. But strong signals from the highest levels—like the one sent by the African Union this summer—are key to ensuring that in the march towards economic prosperity, women are not left behind.

Learn more about USAID’s research, tools, technology and methods for strengthening women’s land rights at www.land-links.org/gender

Susan Markham is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

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