In 2016, Akina Mama wa Afrika with support from the Commonwealth Foundation partnered with the Women’s Land Rights Movement in Malawi, NGO Coordinating Council in Zambia, and Swaziland Women’s Land Rights Coalition in Swaziland to conduct feminist research on women’s land rights in Southern Africa, especially in the face of increasing large scale land acquisition for investments in Africa.
This is in line with the aspirations enshrined in progressive legal instruments on gender equality including the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW obligates all member states to “address rural women’s precarious living conditions and lack of ownership of land and inheritance by ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women with respect to ownership and inheritance of land.” The research was conducted to generate evidence for advocacy and policy influence for better land governance for women.
In Zambia, Malawi, and Swaziland, despite the proliferation of several laws and policies, implementation remains grossly inadequate. The research found that patriarchal and negative cultural norms continue to create barriers for women to enjoy their property rights. This is coupled with women’s limited awareness of their rights, expensive legal justice and inadequate participation of women in institutions that administer land.
“Cultural, social, and religious customs prevent them from owning or doing what they wish with their land. On the rare occasion that a woman is receiving personal land from her chief, it is usually a small, low quality plot that is not practical for farming. The term rare occasion is used due to the fact that women seldom inherit land from family or even deceased husbands,”
An interview respondent from Zambia
In Malawi, women cannot inherit land from their deceased husbands, however, they do inherit land from their matrilineal family. Similarly, in Zambia, women cannot inherit land at all from their deceased husbands if under a State lease and even if it is not, they only inherit 20%. Additionally, this research also unveiled incidents where traditional Chiefs in Malawi will threaten to retract land from women and their families unless they receive sexual favours from them. If denied, many of these Malawian women are assaulted, ostracized, or left homeless.
This therefore emboldens land rights and women rights activists, policy makers, academia, and all key actors to ensure that laws and policies that have been developed are adequately implemented with a feminist lens. The stepping stone is to ensure that more feminist leaders are effectively participating in leadership and decision-making. Rural women also need to be continually empowered and given agency in order for them to know their rights and to speak out. This means more women must be in positions of leadership in their community in order to allow this to happen. A strong and vibrant women’s land rights movement will go a long way to tackle these issues and ensure that women’s land rights in Southern African are secured and respected.
It is clear that with more women able to access and own land, rural women will be more likely address sexual and gender based violence and reap other benefits such as financial autonomy and security, agency, and empowerment.