Dispatches From AWID 2012: Women’s Land Rights Debate Roils On


The 12th Annual AWID Forum is taking place April 18-22 in Istanbul, Turkey, drawing more than 2,000 feminist and development thinkers from around the world. The theme is Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson and Global Contributor Jessica Mack are in Turkey for the event and will bring you up-to-date news and insights throughout. Follow #AWIDForum and #AWID2012 on Twitter for more updates.

In the past few years, women’s access to land has emerged as a key global development issue. As foreign investment and development in Africa and South Asia continues, and as a global food crisis looms, it has become virtually impossible to ignore the substantial role women play in farming and land management, though they consistently lack rights to land ownership. A panel at AWID today, “Gender-Responsiveness Governance of Land: Women’s land rights struggles, challenges, and lessons,” featured land tenure experts and grassroots organizers from Latin America, Africa, and Europe.

Catherine Gatundu from ActionAid International pointed out that for women, land is a source of both power and dignity. From that source flows numerous other types of power and dignity, from bodily autonomy and sexual rights to economic independence. The right to own land is, quite literally, foundational to women’s rights.

Panelists agreed that the greatest successes in improving women’s access to land in recent years had come through the building grassroots women’s collectives, which advocated for their own rights, and helped change community attitudes and policies in the process. Legal frameworks are critical, but sustainable access to land must go a step further – women must be part of the conversation and the decision making process when it comes to land, and most of all they must be informed of their rights.

Violet Shivutse  from Groots Kenya, discussed a successful program to establish community-wide “watchdog groups” at the village level, which track and protect the land rights of widows and orphaned girls – most vulnerable to land-snatching after their “link” to ownership (read: a man) was gone. The very existence of such watchdog groups —  which include diverse actors like land specialists, village elders, women, and lawyers — has increased broad community awareness of women’s land rights. The groups serve as legal stewards for local women seeking retribution for land grabs, and also help educate women about their rights.

Prof Dzodzi Tsikata from University of Ghana detailed the issue of women’s land rights according to three eras of massive land dispossession:

  1. Colonization in the 1700 and 1800s;
  2. Globalization in the 1980s; and
  3. New land deals in the 2000s.

According to Tsikata, 20 million hectares of African land have been acquired by foreign investors in the last three years. Most of this has been in Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Madagascar, and the DRC, but she pointed out that smaller land acquisition in other African countries is no less destructive –- for Africa’s agrarian-based societies, land is livelihood, and is everything.

Other key points raised by the panel include:

  • Tension between customary law and constitutions when it comes to land: In Sierra Leone, for instance, the constitution says men and women have equal rights, unless customary law says differently. Customary law says women are property of men, and thus they are prohibited from inheriting land despite the fact that women do about 70 to 80 percent of the farming.
  • Land rights ARE an issue of women’s land rights: There was consensus that no longer should “women’s land rights” be seen as a pet or side issue of broader land rights, but rather integral to the very issue. One audience member shared a telling anecdote:

“I was at a land rights conference and mentioned to a colleague that women are disproportionately affected by land grabs. He said, ‘we’re not here to talk about women, we’re here to talk about land.’ The land grabbing debate is escalating and if we don’t ensure that the debate is not gender blind, it’s a massive problem. Anyone who thinks they are “just working on land” should know that they need to be talking about women.”

  • Women struggle for land rights around the world: Disproportionate land rights and access is not a problem confined to the Global South; it happens around the world, including in developed nations. Why aren’t we talking about this issue in that broader context as well? 

Panelists concluded that the struggles of women and land will be addressed when women are put in leadership positions. Dialogue needs to continue on this critical issue. 

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