Friday, 27 February 2009

Land Rights for Women Still Far from Becoming a Reality

By Zarina Geloo
Inter Press Service
October 13, 2003

When Lands Minister Judith Kapijimpanga announced recently that government had, with immediate effect, directed local authorities to intensify land allocation to women to empower them through ownership, there was a huge round of applause. When she urged the usually truculent traditional rulers to encourage women to own land of which 90 percent was under utilized, the women's movements said they had scored a victory. But not everyone is optimistic. The Zambia National Land Alliance, an NGO reviewing the land policy, says all this is high sounding and right along the lines of affirmative action, but will be a long time coming.

The draft National Land Policy, which includes a commitment to ensuring that 30 percent of demarcated land goes to women, is a good document says Joseph Mbinji from the alliance. But there is a lot more advocacy and publicity that needs to be done to make this a reality for women, he adds. ”We have been talking about land ownership for women for a long time. This is not the first time, but we have not resolved the impediments to women owning land, or their insecure tenure.” He says women are often unaware when government is selling land because it is normally published in newspapers, only available along the line of rail and in English, which many cannot read. Women also do not have they means to purchase land. There is also a perception that land ownership is externally driven and is not necessarily a 'felt need' of women.

Zambia has a two tier land system. State and Customary. The government holds state hand which is supposed to be six percent of the total land available for production and the chiefs and tribal heads holds customary land, which is 90 percent of arable land in their fiefdoms, in rural areas. This, they allocate to their subjects and increasingly, to 'investors'. ”There is a difference between the urban woman who is able to buy state land and has the urge to own that land and the rural woman who lives on tribal land whose urge for ownership is not strong, explains Emma Nalishuwa a consultant on land use.

In rural areas, married women have access to land for farming through their husbands, but in the event of a divorce or widowhood, they may continue to use the land but will not inherit control of the land. Most women go back to their villages where they are dependent on a male kin for access to land. It is unheard of for a married woman to be given land in her own right. Rural women do not challenge their unequal position under customary law. Ironically, female chiefs do not act differently from their male counterparts in administering land to the disadvantaged women, Nalishuwa says. ”We have to careful here that we are not alienating them further by forcing them to own land and bringing them into conflict with the norms and ways of their villages by upsetting the status quo.”

But the recent Expert Group Meeting on Land Tenure Systems and Sustainable Development in Southern Africa said it was important that women in both rural and urban settings were provided with information in order to be empowered and have knowledge that land ownership was a human right and a right that women could access it anytime they wanted.

Henry Machina, co-ordinator of the Alliance, says while in theory the 1995 Land Act does not discriminate against women, it ignores the historical reality of an unequal society in which women have not had access, ownership and control over land. Patrilineal customs do not assign women entitlement to land and there is poor administration of inheritance rights when it comes to women. Machina says while in matrilineal societies women had access and use to land, due to social cultural factors, men continued to control the benefits from land through having a grip of the marketing of land produce and had more opportunities to credit.

Even in the event that a woman owned land, if she could not afford land administration costs and legal costs in case of disputes, she remained not only at a disadvantage, but also risked losing her land. Like in the case of Saphina Tembo. An investor bought land in her village, fenced off the major river and she had no water for herself, her vegetables or her cattle. Eventually she moved to a poorer section of the riverbed. ”I hear all about give women this and that but no one gives anything, look here I have been chased off on my own land by a stranger. It is not thieves or crooks that gave this investor the land, it is the government, so where do I go?” she asks.

Machina says women like Tembo are right in questioning government because while the land policy mentions gender, it does not comprehensively address gender inequality in access to and ownership of land. While the government is a signatory to a number of international instruments including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the SADC Gender and Development declaration of 1997, it has not domesticated these instruments. ”This raises serious questions about how serious our Government is in enabling women realize their land rights”

He says with HIV/AIDS taking its toll women and children find themselves at a loss when their spouses die because they are usually stripped of the land or it is sold off to buy medicine. ”Food is produced by women so when they are incapacitated or unable to tend to the fields, families and in the process communities, suffer food shortages and yet it is absurd that women do not have the right to the means from which to feed their families.” Kapijimpanga argues that it was for this precise reason that the government was committed to the issue of land tenure as it was vital towards food security and the creation of wealth in the country.

But Machina says nice sounding policies do not go far enough. There should also be an extensive review of the current land policy and Lands Act of 1995, to enable it categorically spell out the position of poor peasants especially women. The policy and law should have a provision to compel the Ministry of Lands, Tribunal and City Councils and other stakeholders in land, to desegregate data according to gender and simplify land administration to lessen costs so that women access titles to land. ”There should also be a whole mind set about women's role in development - as partners not as appendages.”


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