In Kenya, residents of a women-only village established in 1990 were finally granted ownership of their tract of land this month. In Tanzania, the government affirmed its commitment to promoting equality in access, ownership and use of land, noting that women’s economic development is pre-requisitely determined by how easily women can access land. These recent developments are to be celebrated, particularly since African women depend on land to power agriculture, which is a source of livelihood for 70% of the continent.
But even as we celebrate these progressive steps, much more still needs to be done to achieve gender equality in land ownership.
In Kenya, for example, women own less than 2% of all titled land even though they almost 55 percent work in agriculture according to a 2020 USAID Kenya gender analysis report. In Malawi, women still struggle to attain equality in land ownership. Globally, according to the World Economic Forum, women including those from the African continent, own less than 20 percent of world’s land. This is not okay.
Women should have equal access to land ownership. Land and the ownership of it is recognized as a foundational element for advancing agriculture and other sustainable development agendas. Lack of access to land for women hinders their ability to access financial services and other development initiatives and schemes needed to continuously improve land and agriculture.
Furthermore, not owning the rights and title deed to the land women are living in disenfranchises them and exposes them to all forms of abuses. In addition, a recent study in Lesotho and Zimbabwe revealed linkages between lack of land ownership and entrepreneurial performance. In Ethiopia, another study revealed linkages between adopting climate-smart agriculture with lack of access or user rights to land.
I know about the vulnerability women feel when their ability to own land is not assured. Growing up in the Kenyan Coast in the 80’s and 90’s, I still remember wondering if my father would consider giving my three sisters and myself a piece of land, since, it was uncommon for women to own land. I also wondered what would happen to my mother should our father pass away.
Luckily, my father, despite all the traditions, and societal norms, ensured that all of us, including our mother, have land and own the title deed to our land. This gave us peace of mind and more assured security should anything happen to him.
My family should not be the anomaly. We must fight for a world where every woman, no matter what country they are living in - developed or developing - has equal rights to land. Women must be able to own land if they wish.
Women land tenure rights must be an issue that governments and policy makers prioritize. Countries should further review their land policies and laws, in order to ensure that women have equal land tenure rights. Furthermore, several practices including recognition of customary land rights of women, community land demarcation and collective titles, establishing decentralized land administration systems and gender-sensitive land registration programs can help rectify this challenge.
Moreover, there are benefits that can come with improved land tenure rights. Land titles can be used as a collateral to improve access to credit for agricultural investment while enhancing women’s willingness to make medium- to long-term investments on their land. All of these steps can facilitate the attainment of three sustainable development goals-eliminating poverty (SDG 1), ending hunger (SDG2) and gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
When women thrive because they have equal rights - including equal access to land - everyone benefits, including their families, communities, countries, and our global world.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor with the Entomology Department at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Illinois. She is a Senior Food Security Fellow with New Voices, The Aspen Institute and has also serves as a Clinton Global University Initiative (CGIU) mentor for Agriculture.