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African Nations Pledge Greater Land Rights for Women

At a land policy conference last week, African governments adopted a resolution to grant documented land rights to at least 30 percent of their female populations by 2025. But to do that they must navigate a complicated mix of local laws and long-held customs.

Written by Christabel Ligami Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Women gathering up straw in Gorgora, Ethiopia. Women contribute 70 percent of Africa’s food production, but only a fraction officially own land.DeAgostini/Getty Images

African governments have committed to addressing the challenges of granting women equal land rights and have said they will aim to have documented land rights for at least 30 percent of their female populations by 2025.

Representatives from at least 50 African states made the pledge last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the second annual Conference on Land Policy in Africa, in which the theme was ensuring that women and young people have access to land. The countries resolved to review their national land policies and programs to make sure they have gender-sensitive legal frameworks to allow women to use, control, own, inherit and dispose of their land and natural resources. They also pledged to collect gender statistics to better track their progress toward the 30 percent target.

Women contribute 70 percent of Africa’s food production and account for nearly half of all farm labor. They make up 80–90 percent of those involved in food processing, storage and transportation, but they own less land than men.

A 2013 report by the International Policy Research Institute shows that across 10 countries in Africa, on average 39 percent of women own land individually, compared with 48 percent of men, and 12 percent of women own land jointly, while that figure is 31 percent for men.

Hirut Girma, land and gender expert at the Africa Land Policy Centre (ALPC), which organized the conference, says the growing demand for land – from population growth, degradation of agricultural lands, and urbanization – is making women increasingly vulnerable to losing their land rights.

“If all the African countries implement this commitment within the set time frame, it will not only benefit the women, it will be a key agent of change to their families and their communities,” she told News Deeply at the conference.

The resolution also means that women are more likely to gain the right to inherit land, instead of losing everything to their in-laws when their husbands die, as currently happens in several countries.

“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,” says Joan Kagwanja, a coordinator at ALPC. “As a result, women are placed in a position of considerable insecurity with regards to their land rights.”

But to come up with legislation that finally grants women control over the land they live and work on, says Girma, governments will have to navigate a jumble of intersecting factors, from formal laws to customary and religious laws and practices, as well as socioeconomic factors – like poverty and education – and family dynamics.

“Harmonizing inconsistencies across and within these systems and practices in favor of women’s land rights is critical for strengthening the social and legal legitimacy of land,” she says.

To do that, experts at the conference stressed the need to include women in the conversation about land rights. At one of the conference sessions that included traditional authorities from African countries, delegates recommended that women should be involved in developing provincial- or national-level solutions and should have a voice and representation in institutions leading and influencing land use governance.

“Ideally, any decision-making process around secure land rights should be a collaborative process that engages men and women,” said Ibrahim Mwathane, chair of the Land Development and Governance Institute, at the session.

“Community, customary and religious leaders must be educated and trained on the importance of reforming women’s land rights, existing legal protections and rights for women, and [on] how to lead collaborative decision-making that engages both women and men.”

This year, delegates at the second annual Conference on Land Policy in Africa focused on increasing land access for women and young people. (Christabel Ligami)

Many experts agree that meeting the challenge of women’s land rights is essential to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to end poverty and food insecurity. Goal 1 – to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” – calls for all men and women to have equal rights to economic resources as well as equal “ownership and control over land and other forms of property” by 2030. Goal 5, which aims for gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, also includes giving women equal land rights.

Getting to that point, however, will take more than laws and policies. Along with legislation to grant women the rights to their land, governments need to make sure women know about those rights, says Rebecca Ochong, a consultant at the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) Unit of U.N.-Habitat.

The key to ensuring that eventually all women can own, use and benefit from their land is information and education, she says.

“Women need to have the right knowledge that the land belongs to them. With control over the land, women will now be able to take more control of their lives.”

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