Despite reforms, patriarchal systems continue to hinder land ownership by African women

Despite reforms, patriarchal systems continue to hinder land ownership by African women

“Gender inequality in access, control and decision-making over land and natural resources remains a major bottleneck to advancing sustainable development in Africa.”

(UNMIL /Christopher Herwig )
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Despite recent advancements in land reforms across Africa, women and girls are still hugely disadvantaged, according to a recent meeting of experts. The 2020 Africa Land Forum (ALC), which took place online between 15 and 17 September, brought together 500 participants to explore the theme ‘Delivering on the African Union Agenda 2063 by Promoting People-Centered Land Governance in Africa’.

Discussions revealed that when it comes to land rights the issue of inclusion and gender equality is still a massive challenge on the continent, and while women continue to provide the largest portion of agricultural labour across Africa, they do not benefit from an equitable, secure land tenure system.

In 2015, the African Union (AU) Commission, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank launched a campaign to ensure that 30 per cent of the land in Africa is in the hands of women by 2025. Improving women’s access to and ownership and control of land is crucial if African countries are to meet a number of Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, ranging from Goal 1 on poverty eradication to Goal 5 on gender equality to Goal 8 on decent work.

There is little continent-wide data regarding land ownership, but according to a 2018 working paper from the World Bank, based on data representing more than three-quarters of Africa’s population, just under 13 per cent of African women (aged 20-49 years) claim sole ownership of land, compared with 36 per cent of African men. And when it comes to joint ownership, just 38 per cent of African women report owning any land (alone or jointly), compared with 51 per cent of African men.

A lack of access to land leaves women and girls at the mercy of a highly patriarchal system, deepening gender inequality and severely curtailing their social, economic and political progress, according to Esther Mwaura Muiru, the global women’s land rights manager at the Rome-based International Land Coalition (ILC), which organised the September conference along with the AU Commission and Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

“Gender inequality in access, control and decision-making over land and natural resources remains a major bottleneck to advancing sustainable development in Africa.”

She told attendees that a lack of access to land limits women’s ability to access finance to support their agricultural activities or acquire farm inputs. This in turn also means that women cannot make decisions on how to use the proceeds acquired from land despite being the ones that mostly toil on it.

Muiru noted that the continent’s developmental blueprint, Agenda 2063, recognises that women living in rural areas play a key role in supporting their households and communities in achieving food and nutrition security, income generation and in improving rural livelihoods (according to World Bank data, 59 per cent of Africans living south of the Sahara live in rural communities).

But one of the biggest hurdles to the realisation of these rights are the “serious, major gaps between gender equality provisions on paper, and the realities of women and girls on the ground,” Muiru told participants. For example, strategic frameworks such as the 2016 Kilimanjaro Charter of Demands which (although yet to be officially adopted by national governments or regional bodies) was launched as a 15-point rural women’s initiative to help advance the right of women and girls to access, use, control, own, inherit and dispose of their land and natural resources. There is also the AU’s Strategy for Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment (GEWE), 2018-2028 which promotes a rights-based approach to development, as well as the Maputo Protocol on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which guarantees women’s right to land and productive resources in Articles 7, 15, 19 and 21.

Persistent barriers and challenges

Improved access to land rights alone is not enough to empower women and girls. According to Agnes Andersson Djurfeld, a professor of human geography at Lund University who co-authored a book on gender and agriculture in rural Africa, “policymakers and development agencies should adopt a multifaceted approach that includes aspects beyond agriculture. These include issues of sexual and reproductive rights, for instance, and freeing women from the heavy and time-consuming drudgery of domestic work in poor, rural settings.”

Muiru agrees and calls on the continent’s leaders to dedicate “significant resources, attention and political will” to deal with the persistent barriers and challenges that undermine secure land rights for women and girls. For example, although most countries have legislation that recognizes women’s equal right to land, traditional and customary practices often prevent them gaining ownership. Some women also find that instead of being allocated land by their fathers it is passed down to a male relative, or that in the event of the death of a spouse, they lose their right to land or become very vulnerable to evictions, often at the hands of their spouse’s family. “By solving women and girls land rights we could end 50 per cent of all issues surrounding unequal gender relations, including lack of economic power and marginalisation in general,” Muiru declared.

Besides being disadvantaged by a culture-driven land tenure system, “modern” development initiatives across Africa also have had negative effects on women and girls. This includes large scale investments in infrastructure development that displace or negatively impact control of land and various natural resources by local communities.

“Land issues are complex and need to be connected with a lot of other sectors, such as education, policies of welfare transfers, culture, credit system – all areas where you can develop incentives or structures for a system where women participate in decisions with regard to their land,” says Romy Sato, local knowledge engagement network coordinator at the Netherlands-based Land Portal Foundation (which was not part of the September event).

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic has also stymied women’s quest for gender equal land rights in Africa. A survey published in July by the ILC and Oxfam found that the coronavirus had badly disrupted the ability of women to pursue their right to ownership of land due to social restrictions imposed to control the spread of the disease (such as transport bans) and the attendant economic disruption. It found that “up to 40 per cent of respondents risked losing rights to their land, while 56 per cent of land activists were unable to engage with their communities directly, and 40 per cent are not in a position to advocate for the passing of land laws and monitor its implementation.”

Streamlining issues of land governance in many parts of Africa has been hampered by limited accurate and up-to-date information on land uses, tenures and rights, and is exacerbated by weak and complex processes that govern land management, according to Clement Adjorlolo, principal programme officer at the AU Development Agency-NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD). “Pursuant to achieving the AU Agenda 2063 and Declaration on land issues and challenges in Africa, the land data ecosystem must be effectively leveraged,” he told the event.

Across the continent critical questions over what data exists, where it is kept, whether it is complete and current, and whether the source of the data is authoritative continues to arise. In response, in 2014 AUDA-NEPAD created the Land Governance Program (LGP) initiative, which is currently being implemented in ten countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Cameroon, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Botswana and Madagascar. “The LGP programme aims to make available data and produce evidence to raise understanding at the country and continental level of the role of land governance for Africa’s structural transformation, sustainable development and climate change adaptation and opportunities for investing in the lands sector,” Adjorlolo tells Equal Times. The initiative will involve the setting up of help desks on land governance to help collect data and share land information and will be rolled out in phases across the continent.

However, in order to ensure the land rights of women, girls and other marginalised groups, better data is fundamental to improving policies and outcomes, according to Laura Meggiolaro of the Land Portal Foundation. “From a data perspective more granular and disaggregated data would help to gain a better picture of how women are accessing information across different tenure systems and also support the development of better policies to increase their tenure security.”