A Woman’s Right to Land in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)


Women comprise of more than half of all farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet they only account for less than 1 per cent of land owners in the region. This is largely due to the fact that legislation in most African countries favour men’s ownership and property rights, while severely limiting women’s access and control over land.

A woman’s right to land has been recognised long ago by the international community, such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women from 1979 and the Millennium Development Goals 2000.

On the regional level, an additional protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was adopted in 2003 which specifically deals with the rights of women, and whose Articles 15 and 19 explicitly guarantee women’s equal property rights and access to land.
Not surprisingly, however, a number of issues with implementation exist. Even countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ghana with their non-discriminatory, gender-neutral domestic laws that do provide for equal land ownership rights experience the same problem of unequal access to land as a result of the prevailing customary regimes with powerful patriarchal norms that ultimately lead to perpetuating gender discrimination.

Gender inequality in land governance in Sub-Saharan Africa has proven to be inextricably linked to a breadth of challenges to both women’s welfare and that of their families. For instance, children, whose mothers have been deprived of access to land but whose livelihood is farming, are said to be at least 30 per cent more likely to be severely underweight than children of women who own land. Additionally, women who are land owners are up to eight times less likely to be subjected to domestic violence.

Thus, ensuring women’s property rights and increasing their access to land is directly proportional to the economic development of the whole region, the promotion of dignity and food security and the reduction of poverty levels. Moreover, granting women control over land is the key to successfully tackling gender inequality, empowering women and building more social capacity.

“When women are empowered and can claim their rights and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices, economies grow, food security is enhanced and prospects are improved for current and future generations”, says the former head of UN Women and current Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Tackling the unequal land ownership in Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly a major challenge. It is not, however, one that cannot be overcome. While having an effective legal framework in place that regulates women’s property rights and promotes a more gender-neutral land distribution is important, more effort should be made to enforce existing legal norms in order to achieve practical results.

Such efforts would include raising awareness at all levels of the importance of addressing the challenges that hamper women’s socio-economic development, peace, security and environmental sustainability as well as exerting more pressure on African governments to bridge the gaps between their land-governing statutory and customary laws.