Women’s Land Ownership — The Engine for Rural Women Empowerment and Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa
Despite the continued acknowledgment of women’s contribution to African food systems and rural economies, the land question has always been marred by injustices. While sub-Saharan countries have achieved different legal and policy strides in addressing the land issue, studies have shown that even where laws are equitable, women may not know their legal rights and implementation may still be gender-biased. Law enforcement may be grossly inadequate or prejudiced against women. Women represent just 15 percent of landholders, i.e, those who exercise management control over an agricultural holding as owners or tenants, or through customary rights.
Land is the foremost and most important natural resource and a catalyst to sustainable food systems and agriculture, the main source of income for 90 percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the region where most (approximately 75 percent) of rural settlements still use and allocate land based on customary land tenure systems.
The effects of women's insecure land tenure
It is general knowledge that under customary tenure systems, men have assumed custodianship of land ownership and rural women have access to land through male heads of the households such as husbands, fathers, sons, or brothers. Many women farmers face insecure land tenure and the dependence on male figures makes their use of the land dependent on the continuation of the relationship. Given the insecure tenure, women are less likely to invest in their land or to adopt more efficient agricultural practices as they are uncertain of reaping the benefits over the longer term. Women farmers are largely excluded from modern contract-farming arrangements because they have no ownership security, thereby curtailing their productivity. This dependency can create extreme situations in which a man who lives and works in urban settlements has control of the agricultural products produced by the responsible female on the land.
Lack of access can push women out of agriculture
Women’s ability and rights to use and own land influence their capacity as producers. Access to land is of paramount importance to millions of marginalized women living in rural settlements who solely depend on agriculture, livestock, or forests for their livelihoods. More and more women are heading rural households; gender is actually a basic determinant of social relations and rights in households as well as in communities. The lack of access and land ownership has in some cases pushed female household heads from agriculture to other informal income-generating activities such as petty trading or migration to urban settlements in search of formal employment; these activities increase their vulnerability to starvation and poverty. The ability of female farmers to own land can enhance their prospects for better livelihoods and help them develop more equitable rapport and relations with the majority of the society. It also contributes to sustainable food systems and agriculture development.
The role of traditional councils
Land forms the engine for empowerment largely because it is a main source of livelihood. It is a source of power and the foremost natural resource for agriculture-dependent rural communities. It is impossible to address the land ownership inequity in rural settlements without critically examining the role of traditional leadership and technical systems and structures of land policy. Traditional leaders are the custodians of rural land governance; in most cases, distribution of rural land solely rests with traditional councils which do not have gender parity. Land distribution similarly is based on hereditary rule and promotes patriarchal systems. The principles of gender equity are foreign in traditional councils.
This system needs to be holistic and inclusive of women’s predicament and ownership rights. Africa has long realized the need for practical reforms in customary land laws, as land injustice to women is often cultural and or even religious and highly localized. National governments also have a role to play, as there is a need for strong policy and law enforcement to complement customary policy reforms. Many African states have modified their legal framework to accommodate women’s land rights, but the actualization of the rights ranges from very limited to non-existent. Actors in the women’s empowerment agenda should realize that the attainment of women’s land rights is not a matter of drafting laws but advocating for practical cultural and customary reforms.
Women as providers of Africa's food
There are many women empowerment initiatives but it seems these have forgotten the rural women who produce approximately 70 percent of Africa’s food. Advocating for the attainment of women’s land rights is synonymous with promoting land productivity. Studies show that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. Definitely, Africa has gone past the question, ‘Do women need independent land rights?" The contribution of women to societal development cannot be overemphasized, Studies have demonstrated that when women earn additional income, they spend more of it than men on food, health, clothing, and education for their children. This has positive implications for the immediate well-being of their families; long-run human capital formation; and economic growth through improved health, nutrition, and education outcomes. In rural settlements, we cannot start the discussion on women’s empowerment without addressing land ownership inequity. It is time governments and key actors take an interest in the customary land tenure system to ensure that it is gender– and age–inclusive. With customary systems, recognition and step-by-step reforms of existing rights are generally more effective than premature attempts to establish formal structures. Closing the gender gap in land acquisition and access would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and for society.