Land rights for Africa’s tillers

Women do most of the farm work yet own little of the land. New models of teaching land rights are shifting attitudes, notably among men.

Farmers cultivate maize crops in Masvingo, Zimbabwe.

Efforts to lift the world’s poor people have long focused on educating girls and empowering women. Yet achieving those goals has been slow in many regions. In Africa, for example, women contribute 70% of food production, according to the World Bank. Yet just 13% of women between the age of 20 and 49 have rights to land. The marginalization of African women in general costs the continent $60 billion a year, finds the United Nations, and most of that is caused by gender disparity in land ownership.

Yet across Africa, a growing number of initiatives are finding ways to solve the imbalance of land ownership between men and women. In countries like Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, rural programs run by women’s groups are teaching women their legal rights. Just as important, they are helping men see the economic advantages of granting greater land security to their wives and daughters. Once taught, values like justice and equality sink in, helping village societies transcend entrenched traditions.

“For women’s land rights to be realized, they must not only be legally recognized but also socially,” Jacqueline Ingutiah, a Kenyan human rights official, told Ms. Magazine.

Although nearly all sub-Saharan countries have constitutions recognizing gender equality, traditional styles of governance still control land rights. That leaves women particularly vulnerable. As Transparency International notes, corruption is rampant in rural areas where local chiefs determine land rights. Women often face sexual servitude in exchange for permission to stay on their farms if their husbands die. Daughters are almost never seen as legitimate heirs.

Groups like the International Land Coalition are working with African partners to teach traditional leaders and others how to apply legal standards of gender equality in new land policies. Educating men can have a profound effect. A study conducted in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya by Lori Rolleri Consulting and local partners surveyed male participants before and after a 12-hour course. The results, published in December, showed a dramatic shift in attitudes. Prior to the training, most of the men said land should be passed on only to sons, and few had formal wills. Afterward, many participants had created joint land ownership with their wives and made legal provisions to leave their lands equally to sons and daughters.

The shift in attitudes had another effect, the study found. Landownership laws that are more gender-neutral help reduce “family tension over land matters which had often led to serious consequences” such as violence and cyclical poverty.

As more countries create more equitable societies, African countries are learning that outdated and harmful social norms may not be as entrenched as they seem. They are giving way to higher ideals of justice that benefit all.

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