Women's Access to Land in sub-Saharan Africa
Agriculture is at the centre of all sub-Saharan African economies and accounts for large percentages of the continent’s GDP. Women represent between 60 and 80% of the agricultural labour force, and play an increasingly important role in natural resource management and food production, producing more than 80% of the food . The number of women at the head of a rural household is also increasing. Nevertheless, women own less than 1% of the land in the region . Laws and custom prioritise ownership and land rights to men or to kinship groups controlled by men, therefore limiting women’s’ access and control over land.
The need to secure land and property for women in sub-Saharan Africa is crucial for the economic development of the region as well as in order to improve food security and reduce poverty. Moreover, providing women with control over land is key in order to battle gender inequality, to empower women and to promote their rights.
Women's rights to land
In sub-Saharan Africa both formal law as well as customary practice contribute to women’s limited access, control and ownership of land. In many cases, statutory law is non-discriminatory, gender-neutral and provides for equal rights. However, this is largely ineffective as customary regimes with patriarchal norms prevail. Gender-neutral laws particularly are constantly operating in a predominantly gendered social, economic and cultural context .
Internationally, women’s rights to land are underlined in several international declarations including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 1995 and the Millennium Declaration 2000.
Regionally, The African Protocol on the Rights of Women (2003) places an obligation on states parties to ”promote women’s access to control over productive resources such as land and guarantee their right to property” (article 19).
In the majority of sub-Saharan Africa, national constitutions and legal frameworks are gender-neutral and non-discriminatory and agrarian or land reform laws place no particular distinction on gender. Uganda’s 1995 constitution for example is seen as one of the most gender-sensitive in the region, providing a legal framework for gender equality . However, in reality, women scarcely benefit from these legal elements due to lack of enforcement and knowledge. More importantly, many national governments explicitly recognise communal tenure systems and traditions. As a result, access to land is decided within a male-dominated community system or clan where women play little or no role. Examples include the Village Territorial Management Commissions in Burkina Faso who are given the authority to manage land rights, Ghana’s Constitution in which customary law is considered to be part of common law and Kenya’s Succession Act in which customary law of the community prevails with regards to land inheritance.
Customary regimes therefore dominate land tenure systems across sub-Saharan Africa. Within these regimes, women have little or no means of claiming land or of inheriting property. The possibility of acquiring land through markets is slowly growing but inheritance remains the principal form of land acquisition . In most of the region, inheritance practices are patrilineal meaning that women can only access land through their male relatives on their husband’s sides and following the death of the husband, a woman loses rights to land. Even in cases of matrilineal inheritance, men still seem to acquire land over women. Women’s relationship with land is therefore through husbands, fathers, brothers or sons .
An example is the dominant Mossi tribe in Burkina Faso, which, although Muslim and therefore expected to uphold Shari’a Law allowing for equal rights to land for women, does not permit daughters to inherit land.
Consequences and constraints
In sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of adults living with HIV and AIDS is seven or eight times higher than the global average. Access to land and property is essential not only to improving livelihoods and reducing poverty in general, but also to preventing and stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS, through security and economic and social activity. Denying land rights to African women increases their vulnerability to the disease.
At the same time, prevalence of HIV/AIDS amongst African men results in the increasing number of households headed by women. However, their continuingly restricted access to land places many families in a situation of insecurity as the ability to hold on to land becomes uncertain. Indeed, most widows lose control over all assets of the deceased spouse.
Land-grabbing is another subsequent problem restricting women’s access to land. It often involves the land of the deceased male being taken from the wife by male relatives of the deceased’s family. This practice is largely accepted in customary regimes, further increasing female insecurity and threatening household livelihoods.
Privatisation or land-titling
Although intended to stem the negative effects of customary tenure systems, the privatization process of giving legal land titles to individuals has often been “gender blind”. As a result, men, as the household heads, have acquired the land titles and women’s rights have once again been undermined.
In recent years, international bodies have recognized the threats posed by the limited access to land for women in sub-Saharan Africa. Various NGOs are now very active in the region on the question of women’s land rights. Some positive developments include:
- The recent adoption by the South African Development Community of a Gender and Development Protocol in 2008 recognising that women have unequal legal status, including in relation to property rights, and calling on states to review and reform all laws and policies that determine access to and control of resources, including land. It explicitly recommends that states protect widows from property grabbing .
- UN agencies such as the FAO, the UN Development Fund for Women and the UNDP have increased their work alongside NGOs in order to raise awareness of women’s rights.
- Organisations in various countries promoting a gender-sensitive legal framework and providing advice for women seeking land rights including the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia and the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania.
- In Rwanda, a law was adopted in 1999 giving women the same inheritance rights as men 
- The Ethiopian National Policy on Women, in cooperation with NGOs, civil society and other partners, has been working to promote women’s rights and proper implementation of the CEDAW
- In Malawi, Women’s Voice organization has undertaken a successful country-wide campaign to establish community-level education, raise awareness of human rights, inheritance and property rights, and provide paralegal services for advocacy, counseling and case referral 
- In Kenya, community watchdog organizations and other groups have intervene in instances of property-grabbing, in many cases, negotiating with male family members for access for women and girls.
- In Mozambique, two land campaigns, the NGO ORAM (Organisacao Ruralede Ajuda Mutua) and UNAC (Uniao Nacional dos Camponeses) were established to promote the implementation of laws and raise awareness of land rights. These campaigns focussed particularly on the creation of women’s associations, promoting dialogue about women’s lands rights and giving women strategic advice for land-titling 
Recommendations for the future
Legislation and reform
Fundamentally, laws protecting the land and property rights of women need to be developed and implemented and any discriminatory laws need to be abolished. New laws need to be implemented through the use of dissemination and education programs across society. Existing laws need to be developed to make sure that they contain a clause stating the land rights of women and so that they exist effectively alongside other aspects of the statutory legal framework such as marriage and inheritance law. Enforcement also needs to be improved, monitoring the implementation of laws and strengthening the capacity of the judicial sector to bring cases and apply national as well as international law. Land reform may be necessary in some cases but this must be carried in a gender-aware manner and be successful translated to national and local institutions. Most importantly, women need to be involved at each stage of the policy and decision-making process to promote equality and make their voices heard.
Raising awareness and education
One of the key problems relating to women’s land rights in sub-Saharan Africa is a lack of knowledge on behalf of women of their statutory rights. On top of this, African society and leaders are largely unaware of the benefits and importance of providing access to land for women. In this vein, education programmes are necessary at all levels of society from leaders to rural communities. Organisations that are currently active face considerably difficulties in mobilising the whole of society in order to support women’s land rights.
It is important to raise awareness not only on the available legal frameworks but also on the negative consequences of restricting land rights in the context of HIV/AIDS and of reducing poverty more widely for example. Dialogue is also essential, allowing women to share their experiences and come together to fight for their rights as well as allowing policymakers, implementers and stakeholders to share experiences.
Gender research and information
Although the scope of research and information on this subject is growing, there is still a lack of information necessary to implement reform and change perceptions. In particular, the different national contexts and legal dualism between statutory and customary law require more research especially if laws on marriage and inheritance for example are to be harmonized with laws relating to land and property rights.
- Access to land
- Access to property
- Gender Inequality and the MDGs: What are the Missing Dimensions?
- ↑ New Agriculturalist, "Women's Rights and Access to Land in Africa, Nov 2010
- ↑ OECD, "Gender and Economic Empowerment of Women", 2007
- ↑ Hellum, Anne, University of Oslo, "How can a focus on the rights to land and related economic resources make a difference for poor women in Africa? Seven concerns"
- ↑ ActionAid, "Cultivating Women's Rights and Access to Land", 2005, p.62
- ↑ ActionAid, "Securing Women's Rights to land and livelihoods", June 2008, p.12
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Boston Globe, "Women's land rights can help battle hunger in Africa", March 2009
- ↑ Africa Renewal, "Women struggle to secure land rights", 2008, 22:1
- ↑ ICRW, "To Have and to Hold: Women's property and inheritance rights in the context of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa", 2004, p.49
- ↑ ActionAid, "Cultivating Women's Rights and Access to Land", 2005, p.57
- New Agriculturalist, "Women's Rights and Access to Land in Africa, Nov 2010
- ActionAid, "Cultivating Women's Rights and Access to Land", 2005
- ICRW, "To Have and to Hold: Women's property and inheritance rights in the context of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa", 2004
- Africa Renewal, "Women struggle to secure land rights", 2008
- ActionAid, "Securing Women's Rights to land and livelihoods", June 2008
- Oxfam Land Rights, resources homepage
- FAO Gender and Land Rights Database