Protecting and promoting women’s land rights in the face of COVID-19 and beyond

©FAO//Fredrik Lerneryd

Parliamentarians and civil society look at how to advance women’s land rights and their importance for the achieving the SDGs

29/09/2020 - 

For rural women and men, land ownership is crucial to support agriculture production and to ensure the food and economic security of their households. Secure ownership and control of land also has an important positive effect on women’s empowerment: secure land tenure is associated with higher levels of investment and productivity in agriculture, which in turn lead to higher income and greater economic well-being for women and their households. Where women are able to own or control land, they are less likely to depend on male relatives for economic security. Land rights also offer women greater bargaining power within their households and protection from falling into poverty, particularly if they divorce or are widowed.

Promoting women’s land rights offers a unique opportunity to advance women’s socio-economic empowerment. Instruments - such as the Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Tenure (VGGT) - exist to further this process, but political will is also necessary. In view of this, FAO, IISD and Oxfam organized a virtual dialogue to share good practices and measures that can be adopted to foster gender equitable land tenure rights. The discussion, which brought together a variety of stakeholders involved in land tenure, also examined the importance of land rights in eradicating poverty and food insecurity, improving gender equality and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Her Excellency Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the Africa Union Commission, opened the discussion with an overview of the African Union’s support to ensuring women’s land rights. Not only is women’s empowerment one of the priority areas of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, but strengthening security of land tenure for women is a central commitment of the AU’s Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa. Since 2009, the AU has made several progressive decisions, asking its member states to allocate 30% of documented land rights to women, harmonize legal frameworks and integrate gender consideration in the land sector in Africa, and review and update existing policies to achieve these targets by 2025.

Despite the AU’s efforts, work remains to be done to ensure that women in Africa can acquire land on an equal basis. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen the situation, as women’s land rights are likely to weaken if men in their family succumb to the virus. Ambassador Sacko highlighted the fundamental importance of involving traditional rulers as partners in addressing these challenges. In addition, she said, women must be involved in decision making in land governance processes at local and community levels, and be able to access the information they need to make these decisions. She encouraged parliamentarians to design and implement policies and laws that are gender-responsive and include safeguards to women’s rights to land.

Martha Osorio, Gender and Rural Development Officer with FAO, presented the current situation of women’s land rights around the world, demonstrating that at both global and regional levels, women still face discrimination in several areas of land rights. Not only are women less likely to own, manage or control land, but when they do own land, it is often smaller in size and of poor quality. She also highlighted that despite the success of many progressive laws which are relevant for women’s land rights, an analysis of 34 legal frameworks using the SDG methodology for SDG indicator 5.a.2 demonstrate that legal reforms are still needed in many contexts to protect and guarantee women’s rights to land.

The discussion began with representatives of civil society organizations, who shared their experiences and recommendations. Karol Boudreaux, Chief Program of Landesa, spoke of the progress made in joint titling in Africa, and highlighted the need to make women active participants in the process, rather than just passive beneficiaries. She explained the importance of involving traditional leaders and paralegals, as they can help bridge the gap between formal and informal justice systems and foster dialogue.

Esther Mwaura-Muiru, International Land Coalition’s Global Women Land Rights Manager and founder of GROOTS Kenya, a grassroots women’s movement, spoke of the role of collective action and mobilization in advancing progress, and of the need for reliable sex-disaggregated data to inform policies that address the specific challenges women face. Collecting, analyzing and complementing national statistics with sex-disaggregated data was essential to creating fairer programmes and policies, she said.

Neloum MBaigoto, Campaign Director for Chad without Hunger, highlighted the power of advocacy and partnerships in achieving sustainable change. In Chad, civil society organizations played a key role in supporting women and in lobbying the government to review the land code at a time when the country was undergoing major institutional reforms, and establishing partnerships between women in urban and rural areas helped to strengthen the initiative. She also cited the role of traditional leaders in advancing change, noting that traditional authorities granted more than 250 hectares of cultivable land to rural women's groups in Mandoul, Logone Oriental and Mayo Kebbi West provinces as a result of the campaign.

His Majesty Mfumbu Difima Ntinu, Traditional King of Congo and President of the Forum for African Traditional Authorities, agreed that traditional authorities were uniquely suited to protect local identities and advocate for the concerns of local communities. In dialogue and collaboration with the modern state, traditional authorities can act as major agents of development and advance progress in a more coherent manner, by ensuring that land is allocated in accordance with local needs and community rules. Involving traditional authorities further ensures that women remain at the center of decision-making processes, and play an important role in customary tribunals.

Following these interventions, parliamentarians and government representatives took the floor to share their experiences and make recommendations. Mr. Jobo Samba, Head of the National Land Policy Unit and VGGT Secretariat in Sierra Leone, shared that his country was moving from policy to developing laws and testing key provisions enshrined in the national land policy. Two laws under development - a national land commission bill and a customary land rights bill - would grant women and men equal opportunities to access family land, and allow women to represent their family. While these laws offer great possibilies, it is essential to enhance capacities at a local level to ensure that they are enacted.

The honorable Nyinawamwiza Laetitia, Senator from Rwanda, spoke of the challenges in harmonizing women’s land rights and traditional practices, which still play an important role in society, especially those which deal with marriage and inheritance. However, the country continues to make progress towards gender equality in land tenure: every woman in Rwanda now has the right to secure a land title, which allows her to use the land for productive purposes or as collateral for credit.

Dismantling cultural barriers to women’s land ownership was also a priority in Kenya, according to the Honorable Teddy Mwambire, Member of Parliamentary Committee on Lands and Fiscal Planning, and Commissioner Gertrude Nduku Nguku, Vice Chair of the National Land Commission. While women in Kenya must give consent for the disposal of land, cultural stereotypes make them feel like they are not landowners. The country’s laws on marriage, inheritance and succession still have an effect on tenure, and should be reviewed to ensure gender equality in land ownership.

Commissioner Nduku Nguku stressed that the development of frameworks should take into account social, cultural and environmental factors, and that existing laws were not enough: for a real change to happen, there is a need for a cultural paradigm shift. The Hon. Mwambire agreed, stressing the importance of civic education so that women would be aware of their rights.

With only ten years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is crucial to address gender inequality in land rights. Where women lack secure land rights, the impacts are seen across all the SDG indicators. Representing nearly half of the agricultural workforce, women are not only the backbone of rural development, but also important agents of change - when women own or control land, they not only improve the land itself, but their own lives and the fortunes of their communities as well.