Kilimanjaro — Eliminating the gender gap in agriculture is widely seen as crucial to alleviating poverty and improving food security, and the effects of inequality are likely to be further compounded by climate change.
"For global development to be sustainable, the issues of climate change, gender equality and food security must all go hand-in-hand," said Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and head of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, told a recent meeting of experts in Rome convened to mark International Women's day.
"Family farmers are the dominant force in global food production. And, at the same time, they are among the world's most vulnerable people," Food and Agriculture Director-General José Graziano Da Silva said at the gathering.
"Much of the future of global food security depends on their realizing their untapped potential. Rural women are an important part of this, not just as famers but also in processing and preparing food, and local markets," he added.
But, in many countries such as Tanzania, an outmoded system of land tenure continues to shut women out of land ownership. Despites strong laws prohibiting the practice, women farmers still face discrimination.
Asha Ramadhani, a farmer in Tanzania's Mwanga District, has been trying to access a piece of land she desperately needs to boost her meagre crop output. "It's a tricky and frustrating process because I am a woman my issue is treated as a favour rather than a right," she complained.
Local attitudes to land ownership make it difficult for them to access the best land.
The 44-year-old divorcee has in the past three years been leasing a two-acre farm near Mangio village where she grows maize, beans, vegetables and sweet potatoes.
While farming in this village is based on tenancy through exchange of crops, drier weather is making it harder for Ramadhani to pay her lease due to dismal yields.
"My landlord wants a quarter of my crop yield every season as lease payment, but the drought makes it harder to come by," she told IRIN.
Women own only 20 percent of registered land in Tanzania, according to a US Agency for International development (USAID) property rights and resource governance country profile for Tanzania, and land held by women under customary law is likely to be much lower.
The Land Act and the Village Land Act of 1999 govern women's land rights. The constitution of Tanzania also enshrines the equality of all persons.
The law gives women the right to access, own, and control land on an equal footing with men and allows them to participate in decision-making on land matters.
Section 3(2) of both the Land Act and the Village Land Act states: "The right of every woman to acquire, hold, use and deal with land shall, to the same extent and subject to the same restrictions, be treated as the right of any man."
Women are also allowed to own or occupy land jointly with other persons, while protecting them against unlawful transfer of land tittles under joint occupancy.
But legislation is insufficiently enforced.
All over Mwanga district, women are finding it increasingly difficult to access land and water sources in the face of ever drier weather.
"Most people with large tracts of land are men; there are hardly [any] women who own land, especially close to the water sources," Ramadhani told IRIN.
The village land ownership procedure gives men the upper hand, she said. "Many of my friends have lost hope because whenever they lodge their request for land they don't succeed," she added.
The few women who manage to navigate the bureaucracy end up getting small plots - and far from water sources.
Anna Tibaijuka, Tanzania's minister for land and human settlement development, told IRIN men and women should be treated equally in terms of land ownership, but said that, "Importantly, the people must know their rights and not let anyone trample on them."
Yefred Mnyenzi of Haki Ardhi, a Lands Rights NGO in Tanzania, told IRIN that most women have access to land through male relatives, adding that unmarried daughters, widows and divorced women are often "bullied" by their male relatives.
"In some cases husbands have been using title deeds to secure loans without the knowledge of their wives, causing evictions or loss of their property," he said.
Lack of awareness, a male dominated system, social stereotypes and outdated traditions are some of the challenges undermining women's land rights in Tanzania. "The general population must be sufficiently educated to understand these issues," Mnyenzi said.
"Women are typically given few or no rights to land during their marriages - never being permitted, for example, to add their names to documents indicating ownership of property - and even fewer upon the death of a husband," noted the USAID report.
"Customary law focuses property rights on men or kinship groups dominated by men, and thus the ability of women to claim or inherit land is extremely limited," it said.
According to Mnyenzi, the government needs to decentralize land administration to allow grassroots communities to participate in decision-making and economic empowerment and fight discriminatory customs, beliefs and attitudes.
"In situations where women are degraded to an inferior position in the society due to cultural norms, we need to have support systems that enable them to own and use land without problems," Mary Lusibi, a women's rights activist with Tanzania Gender Networking Programme, told IRIN.
Such discriminatory practices aren't just limited to Tanzania. Women own less than 1 percent of land in the African continent, notes William Garvelink, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"While statutory law may be gender neutral, customary law prevails and is based on a patriarchal system. Securing property rights for women is crucial to the economic development of Africa," he said.
Experts are calling for equitable land rights to be included in the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda.
"The post-2015 agenda should include targets and related indicators on secure rights to land, natural resources and other productive assets that explicitly include women's rights," said a statement by 38 international organizations.
"Securing women's land and property rights is a necessary strategy for ensuring gender inequality and advancing women's empowerment worldwide," said a background paper for the UN global thematic consultations on the post-2015 development agenda.
"There is an evident correlation between gender inequality, societal poverty, and the failure to respect, protect and fulfill these rights for women," further noted the report, authored by Mayra Gomez of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and D. Hein Tran of the Landesa Center for Women's Land Rights.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]