What Is Rightfully Hers: Women’s Land and Property Rights in East Africa

“For women’s land rights to be realized, they must not only be legally recognized but also socially.”

—Jacqueline Ingutiah, Regional Coordinator at Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (NHRI)

Tanzania - Entrepeneurship and Land Rights for Maasai Women
Mama Neema stands at the entrance of her traditional boma (homestead) where she built three houses for her family in Kimokouwa village in Arusha, Tanzania, after a 20-year struggle to acquire land. (U.N. Women Gallery / Flickr)

“Around the world, land serves as a foundation for security, shelter, income and potential gender equitable livelihoods. But the rights to land are not equitably distributed to all—and this is especially true for women,” said Dr. Cleopatra Mugyenyi, director of The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) Africa.

In fact, between 70 and 90 percent of all wealth in Africa is generated through land; however, less than 10 percent of the continent is owned by women. This is due to the fact that although legally countries in Africa including Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya promote the equitable ownership of land, socially and culturally “women are not considered to be the ‘rightful owners’ of such communal land,” said Carol Ajema, gender and gender-based violence specialist for ICRW Africa.

Women also struggle with a multitude of hurdles to gain this access to land—including learning about and knowing that these laws exist and gaining governmental support to enforce these laws. ICRW’s webinar, “Land and Property: Safeguarding the Rights of Women,” last month touched on these challenges.

To understand the inequality that lies within women’s land ownership, one must also realize the direct relationship between women’s rights to land and Sustainable Development Goals17 global goals adopted by the U.N. in 2015 to be achieved in 2030 for a more sustainable future for all. 

“Because when women are unable to fully exercise their own rights, they are unable to eradicate poverty, they are unable to sustain food security, their health well being is compromised and the quality of education of their children is compromised. Issues of peace and conflict emerge, because of inadequate access to land, at a society level, but also peace and conflict within the homes,” Naome Wandera, senior research and evaluation specialist for ICRW Africa, told Ms.

As such, ICRW realized that women’s land and property rights are vital to their country and communities’ wellbeing.

Securing Your Family’s Future

Recognizing the struggles that women in Africa continue to face, ICRW became the evaluation partner for the “Securing Your Family’s Future” (SYFF) course. The course’s partners include Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC Tanzania), Uganda Community Based Association for Women and Children Welfare (UCOBAC), The Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN) and curriculum developer and trainer Lori Rolleri Consulting in 2018 to craft a 12-hour course—split into six two-hour sessions over three to six weeks. This course teaches adult men the importance of women’s access to, use of, ownership of, control of and decision-making around land. 

In crafting the program, SYFF partners also realized the necessity of directly educating and supporting women to “continue the capacity building,” Wandera said—“to move from awareness, from knowledge, to building skills for self efficacy” by understanding Africa’s equitable land laws. 

In also supporting the education of women, “women are finding their own way of fighting their way out” of the social and cultural barriers that prevent women from owning land, said Anna Elisha Mghwira, regional commissioner of Kilimanjaro Tanzania.

The Results of SYFF

Men, on the other hand, are also learning through the SYFF program about how to best advocate for women and girls. After going through the SYFF program, out of the approximately 620 men who participated:

  • 251 women have been allotted land by their husbands.
  • 63 men bequeathed land to their daughters.
  • 51 out of 100 men began to write wills—going against a taboo in society that wills predict death.
  • 520 pastoralist women have been allotted land by their husbands and village governments.

Samuel, a pastor, is one out of the 620 men who took actionable steps to mitigate the inequity within land ownership in Africa. Using SYFF teachings, he registered a new piece of land under his one-year-old daughter’s name—securing her a future of land ownership.

Ssalongo Steven Zzikwa also went against cultural norms—creating a will and changing all land documentation to include his wife and children.

Land and Property Rights and COVID-19

Despite this incredible progress, the pandemic has caused more inequity within land and property rights.

“In terms of COVID-19, it is almost like adding salt to the existing injury because we already have good policies but the dilemmas are still existing,” said Mghwira.

The pandemic further isolates women—especially rural women—from learning about the progressive laws that African countries have in place.

“We are not able to go into the community to inform women about their rights to own land and property,” said Mghwira. Additionally, SYFF partners have been unable to adequately help advocate for women who have lost their businesses or have had to take out loans. This is especially impactful for women who were or are in heterosexual marriages as more men have been affected by COVID-19 than women in Africa, leaving many women in a difficult financial position where they are widowed and forced to take up more home-based care work.

With more than 3.9 million people in Africa being infected by COVID-19, “never before has it become more critical to examine what works to advance women’s economic empowerment,” said Mugyenyi. “To examine and share the experience on what works, to rebalance gender power relations, advance gender-sensitive development policies and address gender discriminatory norms and practices for women’s land rights.”

Laws are no good without implementation. ICRW’s evaluation findings indicate that the SYFF program is a catalyst in ensuring the support of women and men who are brave enough to use the law to create change.

Editor’s note: Quotes used in this piece have been lightly edited for clarity.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Smith College. She is majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Her beats include America's health care system, disability, global politics and climate change, and criminal justice reform and abolition. Follow her @jschulmanhall