Up to 70% of Africa’s population of 1 billion people subsists on the land, and 70% of its labour force is employed in agriculture. Most African economies rely on agriculture - for instance, the agricultural economies of Ghana and Nigeria constitute 35% of their gross national product.
Many African women cultivate the land, plant, tend, harvest and prepare for consumption most of the food that comes from smallholdings. They grow food for household consumption as well as for local markets. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): “In developing countries, most women’s work is devoted to agriculture. Women are involved in every stage of food production…women do most of the work involved in sowing, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting the staple crops – such as rice, wheat and maize – which allows for more than 90% of the rural poor’s diet.”
Women gather firewood from forests and fetch water from rivers and lakes for household use.They sustain their families and communities with the products of the land. Yet in most African countries, women’s legal property ownership rights are not secure. Only 1% of women in Tanzania have legal land titles. In Zimbabwe, up to 20% of women have land titles, but despite this relatively higher number, “women rarely profit” from their land, according to an InterPress Service report.
Tenuous Property Ownership Rights
Traditionally, land in Africa was communally owned, which is not to say that all the land was available to anyone, but rather that different ethnic or familial agricultural and pastoralist communities owned and had rights to access and use land.
Patriarchal land ownership systems generally discriminated against women. Most communities were patrilineal; women had access and user land rights derived through their husbands (or their fathers if they were not married). They worked the land for the benefit of their families, but did not have ownership rights.
Colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Africa introduced the concept of individual ownership of land, at first, mainly for the benefit of colonial settlers or governments. Eventually when tracts of land were demarcated and registered for individual ownership by Africans, they were registered in the name of the “head” of the family who was invariably male, thereby perpetuating the patriarchal land ownership system.
Present-Day Land Rush
According to Oxfam, within the last ten years companies and governments have acquired at least 227 million hectares in developing countries, most of it since 2009. In Africa, the purpose of these acquisitions is usually to grow food or biofuel crops, or to extract mineral wealth for the benefit of markets outside the continent. Usually, they are made without the knowledge or informed consent of the affected communities. These land grabs affect the rights of local populations and are particularly detrimental to women.
Europe’s quest to depend less on fossil fuels and more on renewable energy sources has led to land grabs in Africa for the purpose of growing jatropha, oil palm and sweet sorghum for biofuels. In Liberia, the government is displacing people from their farmlands to grant over one third of the nation’s landmass to foreign logging, mining and agro-industrial interests[i]. In Ghana, the traditional livelihoods of many women who depended on their cultivation of cocoa and oil palms are being eroded as a result of land grabs. Ethiopian widows who are already dispossessed of their land ownership rights, and have to farm on ‘marginal lands’ are further dispossessed by land grabs as these ‘marginal’ lands are being grabbed to grow biofuels.
In some instances, land that has been communal for centuries is being demarcated for the benefit of an individual person or corporation.In 2009, indigenous pastoralists in Loliondo in north-eastern Tanzania were forcibly evicted from their ancestral land by the government to make way for a foreign investor to establish hunting grounds for tourism.
Increased burden on women
Land grabs often also affect communities’ access to water, which again, at a household level, is women’s responsibility to secure. Women have to spend more time and walk for longer distances to fetch water or firewood. Land grabs are also a potential source of conflict, and women are invariably disproportionately affected by conflict.
The conversion of land to uses other than growing food for local consumption and trade threatens food security on a continent that is already food insecure. Women in Africa, particularly those in rural areas, have the burden of feeding their families and are key to ensuring food security and poverty reduction in Africa.
Women’s increased burdens exacerbate gender inequalities - women continue to perform most of the caregiving functions in communities and increased workloads stretch them even further[ii].They face income losses from the conversion of land used for food crops (both for household consumption and sale). In Ghana, many rural women derive their income from the cultivation of shea nuts. Now land grabs for growing jatropha are threatening their livelihoods[iii]. In many cases the male “head of household” reaps the benefits of land grab deals, especially since it is usually men who negotiate the deals[iv].
Securing Women’s Rights
Women in Africa are already disadvantaged by discriminatory cultural land tenure norms, and some states recognize this in their laws and policies. For instance, Kenya recently adopted a national land policy that cements women’s land ownership rights and Tanzania has a law that requires women’s participation in local land administration bodies[v].
In 2009, the African Union adopted the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa, which calls on states to ensure equitable access to land and recognizes the role of colonization in cementing patriarchy in land ownership laws by “conferring title and inheritance rights on male family members” and permitting discrimination against women on matters of personal law (marriage and inheritance). The Framework and Guidelines say: “If law and policy are to redress gender imbalances in land holding and use, it is necessary to deconstruct, reconstruct and reconceptualise existing rules of property in land under both customary and statutory law in ways that strengthen women’s access and control of land while respecting family and other social networks.”
They recommend that states enact laws that secure women’s land ownership rights regardless of marital status, allow them to inherit and bequeath land on an equal basis, allow for co-ownership by spouses of registered land and promote women’s participation in land administration structures. The Guidelines go on to say: “To ensure full enjoyment of land rights, these measures must be part of an ideology which removes issues regarding the land rights of women from the private sphere of marriage and family, and places them in the public domain of human rights.”
The Guidelines among other things call on states to “prioritize land policy development and ensure that land laws provide for equitable access to land and related processes among all land users.” But despite their progressive language on women’s rights, the Framework and Guidelines are silent on the issue of land grabs, and this is a gap that the AU needs to plug.Given the past and present experience of forcible displacements, signing away of land and water rights and other increasing hardships for locals, it is clear that several African governments are prioritizing foreign capital investment over the well being of their own citizens.
Women in Africa are organizing to oppose land grabs and call for their property ownership rights to be secured. During the Tanzania Gender Festival in 2011, women’s groups shared stories of organized resistance to evictions and of organizing in cooperatives to earn income. Overall, women’s land ownership rights – including access and control - need to be secured by law.
[i] In her keynote address to the October 2011 Tanzania Gender Festival, Prof Dzodzi Tsikata referred to three land rushes in Africa: During colonization (from the late 19th century), land grabs spurred by economic liberalization (beginning the 1980s) and present-day land grabs for commercial land even seemingly green purposes