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).

Traditional authorities and customary institutions


Inheritance/succession de facto practices

Customary inheritance laws follow a patrilineal inheritance system which privilege men. More specifically, the oldest or unmarried son is more likely to inherit land from his parents while daughters in the Oromiya region cannot inherit their parents’ property because it is believed that their wealth is at their husbands’ homes. In Gambella, women do not inherit property unless there are no sons, the daughters are too old to remarry or the women have sons who are minors. In Amhara, which is predominantly inhabited by Christians, women can inherit only if there are no brothers or parents (8).

Muslim married women have rights over one-eighth of livestock and their by-products. Upon the husband’s death, a widow may be required to marry one of the brothers-in-law in order to continue the family blood line (19).

In the northern part of the country, sons and daughters had an equal right to inherit land since lineage could be traced through their father and mother to claim land, i.e. cognatic descent. In practice, however, given the prevalent patrilocal marriage system, women’s rights to land were often ignored or implicitly traded in exchange for family support (17).

Discrepancies/gaps between statutory and customary laws

Although legislation affirms women’s basic rights to land, resources and employment, customary and religious practices and laws limit women’s access to resources because of the country’s great variety of traditions, norms and practices of ownership (15).

The customary rule that only the husband is entitled to land ownership and officially represents the household in any transaction with other institutions in legal and administrative matters, contradicts Article 35[7] of the Constitution, which guarantees women’s equal rights to acquire, administer, control, use and transfer property. It also violates Article 40 [1] of the Constitution on women’s equal rights to enjoy and use property and to “sell or transfer by succession or by any other means” (15).

Despite the legal protection in the Ethiopian Family Law (FDRE 2000), the rights of women are not yet consolidated. Under customary law, marriages are still not voluntary and parents decide on behalf of their daughters. Bride price and dowry remain important elements of marriage contracts (8).

The National Policy of Women, formulated in 1993, acknowledges the rights of women to participate equitably within society and within the household, but fails to recognize the extent to which significant variations in customs and traditions among regions constitutes a constraint to the effective delivery of development services to women (15). Moreover, although a consent clause exists in the family codes, in practice, husbands can, and often do, take a loan without the consent of their spouses (12).

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