A recent UN Women paper examines gender equality in 49 African constitutions. Most contain statements relating to equality and non-discrimination, with many including specific reference to property rights. Despite this, female land ownership across the continent is as low as 20%.
It makes economic sense to provide security of tenure for women. Women usually perform the role of food producer and household manager, making sure all household members are fed. Giving women - particularly female-headed households – greater influence over land assets allows them greater control over household incomes, and welfare. Tenure security also enhances women’s power in agricultural production and in social relationships in the wider community.
So how can constitutional good intentions be translated into reality?
Some recent land reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa have put issues around women’s land rights at the heart of policy, and – most importantly – the practical implementation of land formalisation.
Rwanda has recently undertaken a nationwide land tenure regularisation programme aimed at systematically registering over 10 million parcels of land for the first time. The Government of Rwanda is well known for its progressive gender policies, with over 56% female representation in parliament. The land registration process itself provided an opportunity to challenge traditional gender values at the ground level, and expose the wider population to the realities of gender equality promoted by the constitution.
The outcome is positive: approximately 66% of women in Rwanda have security of tenure either independently or jointly with their husband. Approximately 93% of public land is owned either singly or jointly by women.
This is supported by a study by the World Bank which identified improved recording of women’s inheritance rights, and attributed significant and large investment impacts to the registration of land that are particularly pronounced for women land holders.
Similarly, Ethiopia recently registered some 40 million land parcels in the four largest highland regions. While rural land is considered inalienable in Ethiopia – it belongs to the state and cannot be bought or sold– there is widespread belief among land holders that the land registration programme improves the position of women, particularly their confidence in renting out their land. Early results from on-going survey work in the Amhara region of Ethiopia support this, estimating that since first registration 60% of female headed households are renting out their land.
Women’s strengthened access to the land rental market allows them to make more economically productive use of their land assets. This is particularly important in the Ethiopian context where traditional beliefs and perceptions discourage women from using oxen to plough their own fields. By renting out their lands, female land holders have a safety net to focus on new income generating opportunities while ensuring that the land is in productive use. The land productivity of plots rented out by female-headed households in Ethiopia is no longer lower than that of male-headed households.
What differentiates the land formalisation programmes in Ethiopia and Rwanda from others on the continent is the adoption of low-cost, community-based approaches to land registration. These approaches involve women in key administrative and decision-making positions at all stages of the process of demarcating and adjudicating land parcels. Land parcel occupation and boundaries are agreed in public, with the consent of all parties, including those occupying neighbouring parcels.
These approaches are supported by strong public awareness campaigns on property rights, including women-specific meetings. These are essential for promoting equitable ownership, but they have to be supported by action. Knowing your inheritance rights as a woman is different to benefitting from those rights.
Often we look at the so-called ‘magic bullet’ of property formalisation through a purely economic lens – this often boils down to improved land markets, easier access to finance using land as collateral, and investments in seeds and soil conservation. While land formalisation can lead to these outcomes, particularly when supported by complementary market interventions, the societal benefits of land formalisation should not be ignored or undervalued. Promoting gender equality through the national constitution, law, and policy is fine in principle, but the benefits – economically and socially – will only really be felt when it is experienced in action at a more fundamental level. Time will tell what influence the principle of land rights equality in Ethiopia and Rwanda will have on the emergence of genuine equality and social harmony in wider society.
John Leckie is a freelance land tenure consultant. He has worked extensively on land tenure issues, particularly systematic land tenure regularisation, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. [read more]