Patience Ayebazibwe led research in Southern Africa on the policies and conventions governing women’s access to land. Here’s what she found.

The status of women in Africa as a whole, and the extent to which the regulatory environment promotes gender equality across different spheres of life, provides an important backdrop for understanding and addressing gender imbalances  in land and investment governance. Moreover, patriarchal attitudes and practices persist, particularly in rural areas, which means that women continue to be marginalised in terms of access to land and productive resources.

A 2017 study conducted by Akina Mama Wa Afrika in Malawi, eSwatini and Zambia, with support from the Commonwealth Foundation, revealed that deliberate restrictions on women accessing, controlling and owning land are common to all three countries. The study also showed that most dominant legal systems are strongly gender discriminatory. This is attributed to an unenforced policy regime on land guided by patriarchal cultural beliefs that do not regard women as custodians of land, discriminatory laws and policies, expensive legal justice, and low representation of women in senior leadership positions, largely as a result of persisting patriarchal attitudes and practices at both community and household levels.

Land is a critical tool of production and remains a social asset that is central to political and financial power, cultural identity and decision making. In Africa women’s customary land rights are more vulnerable. Even where customary tenure systems recognise land rights of both men and women, women’s names are rarely on the documents, making them more vulnerable to losing their rights.

Patience recently met Commonwealth Foundation staff to discuss the progress of Akina Mama Wa Afrika’s project in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation ‘Strengthening women’s voices to advocate for women’s land rights in Southern Africa’

Study after study has shown that women’s access to and control of land, and other productive resources, is central to ensuring their right to equality and to a decent standard of living. This is emphasised in Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 5. While Goal 1 recognises that to end poverty, it will be crucial to ensure equal rights to ownership and control over land, as well as equal rights to inheritance of productive resources (target 1.4), Goal 5 on Gender equality and women’s empowerment calls upon governments to carry out legal and policy reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources (Target 5a). Indeed, evidence shows that a woman who has land has a degree of security; she is less likely to tolerate domestic violence and is in a better position to leave a violent relationship and negotiate safe sex, so the importance of ensuring women’s land rights goes far beyond economic security and access to resources to the imperative goal of ending violence against women.

Why is it then that while women’s land rights are well-recognised as an important pathway for achieving poverty reduction at individual, household and national levels, as highlighted above, many African countries continue to deny them ownership and control of land and other productive resources?

‘Land is a critical tool of production and remains a social asset that is central to political and financial power, cultural identity and decision making.’

The Akina Mama wa Afrika study showed that the situation of women and ownership of land has been worsened by the increased rush for large scale land acquisition by both international and national investors. While contexts differ, investor interest in large-scale land deals for agribusiness has raised commercial pressures on land and livelihoods across sub-Saharan Africa.  Admittedly such projects can potentially benefit local communities, but research suggests that investments can often have negative consequences on vulnerable groups, indeed women suffer disproportionately. This is because such investments tend to reinforce, or even exacerbate, existing attitudes and practices. Further denying women’s access to land.

Understanding these customary norms, as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by existing statutory laws relating to land and investment, is crucial in developing appropriate and effective interventions to strengthen women’s voices and accountability in land and investment governance.

Going forward, advancement of women’s economic rights, their control and participation in the land economy can no longer be ignored if we are to attain gender equality and reduce poverty. The study reveals that Malawi, eSwatini and Zambia need to push for accelerated land reform, particularly to address the duality of the land tenure system which is governed by traditional and statutory norms. This should involve increasing access, control and ownership of land by women in order to address the historical injustices that women have faced over land. The research also points to the need to strengthen women’s livelihood opportunities by increasing their ability to hold agricultural investors in their countries to account. This will not happen overnight and will require organising so that there is a critical mass of activists demanding policy change. This point was well articulated by one of the participants in the research project: ‘land is power, and it won’t be given away easily by those who have it. We need to build a strong movement so that collectively we take actions to challenge the barriers…our voices from the ghetto must be heard. We need land: it’s capital and it’s life’.

Patience Ayebazibwe is Programmes Officer at Akina Mama Wa Afrika. Women’s Land Rights in the Wave of Land Acquisitions in Malawi, eSwatini and Zambia is available for download here. 

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