Gender and Land Rights Database


Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights

Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights.

The country is characterized by great ethnic and religious diversity, with over 85 ethnic groups and most major world and animist religions and a multiplicity of patrimonial and customary laws; this implies variations in the status of women (15).

Semitic traditions and the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia tend to dominate in the northern Tigray and Amhara regions, where, according to customary norms, women cannot plough the land and are forced to rent their land to others and share only 30 percent of the products (15).

The southern regions of Oromiya and Southern Nations and Nationalities People’s Region (SNNPRS) are characterized by Cushitic traditions, animist beliefs and Muslim and Protestant faiths. Also in these regions, women have no right to own land but also can only have access to land through their husbands. This is because the household was traditionally considered as a unit for land distribution and only heads of households were registered as members of the peasant associations.

More specifically, patriarchal rules prevailing in both Muslim and Protestant faiths within the Oromiya region limit women’s access to land. Women gain access to land only through marriage. Upon dissolution of marriage, they are expected to leave their marital homes and return to their natal homes, thus losing access to land of their previous husband (15).

In the eastern region of Gambela, consisting mainly of Sunni Muslims and recently converted Protestants, women have no officially recognized right to own land and they entirely depend on their husbands for access to land.

Important exceptions include the enset-growing areas, where women seem to play a more central role in cultivation because they do not need to rely on animal traction; and the Orthodox north in the Tigray region, where more egalitarian rules prevail (17).

In practice, land and cattle are men’s property, although women can own household utensils and some small animals (chickens and sheep). When women want to sell any personal assets they possess, they must negotiate such decisions with their spouses (18).

As for divorced women or widows, the land they live on is not entrusted to them unless they live and farm with the husband’s family (8).

Polygamous marriages make the issue of land rights complex, especially in the division of use rights among several women. In practice, the oldest wife has access to land because only one wife is allowed to register. Such use rights are vulnerable and are subject to contestation upon dissolution of marriage (8).

In the SNNPR and Oromiya regions, polygamous wives’ resistance has resulted in a change in the registration and certification system so that the husband’s name can be included on the certificate with his first wife and with his later wives (8).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography