Gender responsive land policies are key to household well-being & women empowerment in Africa

The role of women in agri-business and addressing food security in developing countries remains a critical issue on the international development agenda. It therefore came as no surprise that a resounding thread among public posts celebrating the 2017 International Women’s Day centred on calls to secure land and property rights for women.

Indeed, securing women’s rights to land and ownership is among the key challenges needing to be addressed in order to transform the agricultural sector especially in Africa. The challenges of ensuring women’s access to land also emerged as a key theme among some of the presentations delivered during the 2017 Inaugural Conference for Young African Researchers in Agriculture Network (YARA).

Access to land and land rights can ensure supplementary income and food to the vulnerable and marginalised, through providing employment opportunities for wage labourers and readily accessible foods grown for household consumption. In his presentation, Eric Patrick Feubi Pamen from the University of Yaounde 2-Soa in Cameroon, showed that land possession by female-headed households has had significant impact on the well-being of the household and argued  that “land tenure security and equal access of women to property rights and land titles should be seen as an engine for economic growth that can be engaged in the post-2015 development agenda.” This could allow nation states to harness the enormous potential of women to contribute to national developmental and economic goals.

Worryingly, in some parts of Africa the abundance of natural resources has not necessarily resulted in increased economic gains, but has also brought about gender-based violence as shown by Eria Serwajja from the Makerere University in Uganda. He argued that new oil finds are creating ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and contended that the losers are most likely to be women who are either coerced into ‘adverse incorporation’ and/or outright exclusion from land compensation agreements. Serwajja argued: “the collective ‘pre-oil’ social relations between intimates are no longer binding and valid, because the transformation in social relations triggered particularly by financial compensation for land and related property has ignited gender-based violence.”

The Ugandan example highlights the importance of evaluating the models of development and calls for implementing policy interventions that will protect and ensure land access  and ownership for women across Africa.

Continuing with this theme on the second day of the conference, Cosmas Lambini from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, highlighted the scarcity of discussions on the role of women’s economic empowerment in agri-business literature, particularly in developing countries. The presenter pointed out that empowering rural women in inclusive agri-business could raise levels of productivity and production, improve household food security and, at the same time, boost household women empowerment.

Similarly, Christopher Manyamba from the University of Pretoria in South Africa also showed how the linkage between gender transformation, agricultural transformation and household food security is still poorly understood. In his presentation which examined the ‘Nexus between Gender Transformation, Agricultural Transformation and Household Food Insecurity in South Africa’, Manyamba argued that it is crucial that efforts to transform agriculture and ensure food security in sub Saharan Africa also focus on empowering women involved in agriculture. This, he said, was because “most women are primary caretakers and are more likely to influence health and nutrition outcomes of their children and their families as a whole.”

This view was further echoed by Rama Ngenzebuke from the Free University of Brussels in Belgium who explored the productivity returns of multifaceted female empowerment in agriculture. Deviating from the classic unidimensional approaches used to identify gender gaps in agricultural yields, Ngenzebuke placed emphasis on “the overlapping of manifold aspects of female empowerment in agriculture – including female plot ownership, female plot management and female control over the agricultural output – through a threefold interaction model.”

His findings identified significant yields gaps that go unnoticed using the classic unidimensional approach and revealed that “female owners who manage and control their plots are more productive compared to those females who merely own the land but aren’t active participants in its management or control.”

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) could offer remedies to some of the policy gaps identified by the various presentations,  as the study on the role played by the Itireleng Developmental and Educational Project in Mopani District, Limpopo Province (South Africa) by Thotoane Ramalefane from the University of Cape Town has shown. She assessed how the organisation facilitated the land rights of women living in communal areas under the jurisdiction of traditional leaders and found that “Itireleng assisted rural women whose rights in land were previously enclosed within the patriarchal land rights institutions and social relations which disadvantaged them in terms of having property rights.” However, her findings also showed that NGO’s interventions tend to not challenge patriarchal control over land rights in rural communities.

Nevertheless, while most governments are struggling to find sustainable and inclusive solutions, there are some examples of NGO led initiatives leading efforts to transform the sector and ensure women’s access to land. National authorities and decision makers could use such findings to review the collection and analysis of agricultural data related to gender policies in agriculture, for the successful implementation of transformational strategies.

Although the presentations differed in their approaches and focus, there remained a cross cutting thread carried through by all presenters. All agreed that empowering women through securing their access to and control over resources could contribute positively not only to the health and nutrition of entire families, but to national economic and developmental goals. In keeping with the theme of International Women’s Day 2017, securing the rights of women requires all decision makers to #BeBoldForChange and help forge more inclusive, gender equal land policies across the continent.

By Mologadi Makwela