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Blog Series: Land Governance and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Is the security of tenure for women secured in the ‘Africa we want’?

Author: Grace Ananda, the Oxfam Pan Africa Programme
Date: 25 May 2020

About the author

Grace Ananda is Women land rights officer at the Oxfam Pan Africa Programme.

This blog has been reposted with permission. Find the original blog here. Read more about the Oxfam Pan Africa Programme here.

What is the position of women in Africa 57 years after the formation of the African Union? How would the world look like if women had secure access, and control of their land, and natural resources? Would the food crisis be managed differently during emergencies, like the big one we are now living in? These are the questions I keep asking myself anytime I meet with rural women farmers and engage with policymakers in the African continent. When women have secured land rights and property, it elevates their status in their family, community, and society. Strong land rights can empower women while increasing investment in land, increasing household food production, and improves child nutrition. This cannot be achieved without putting the rights, roles, and aspirations of both women and men for land and territories on an equal footing.

On 25 May 1963, Africa made history with the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) the precursor to the African Union (AU). As an affirmation of their commitment to support Africa’s new path to attain inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development, African heads of state and government signed the 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration, during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the formation of the OAU /AU in May 2013.

Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, would be the master plan for how the continent intends to achieve this vision within a 50-year period (2013 to 2063).

Progressively, the ‘Africa of the future’ was captured in a letter presented by Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, then Chairperson of the AU Commission to the Retreat of Foreign Ministers in Ethiopia in 2014, whose excerpt I share:

By the intelligent application of centuries-old indigenous knowledge, acquired and conserved by African women who have tended crops in all seasons, within the first few years bumper harvests were being reported. Agronomists consulted women about the qualities of various grains — which ones survived low rainfalls, and which thrived in wet weather; what pests threatened crops and how could they be combated without undermining delicate ecological systems.

The social impact of the agrarian revolution was perhaps the most enduring change it brought about. The status of women, the tillers of the soil by tradition, rose exponentially. The girl child, condemned to a future in the kitchen or the fields in our not too distant past, now has an equal chance of acquiring a modern education (and owning a farm or an agribusiness). African mothers today have access to tractors and irrigation systems that can be easily assembled.

The producers’ cooperatives, (agribusinesses) and marketing boards these women established help move their produce and became the giant food companies we see today.’

On Africa day 2020, I reflect particularly on this excerpt, and its significance to a cause dear to my heart, women, and land, especially at this time of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Security of tenure for women and the implications of the coronavirus

At the end of 2019, African women celebrated Beijing +25, with renewed hope and optimism for progress in the fight for their rights. Unfortunately, the outbreak of coronavirus might erode these achievements, including women’s access to land and property rights.

The World Bank estimates that just under 13 percent of African women claim sole ownership of land, compared to 36 percent of African men. While African Heads of State and Government have in the past resolved to strengthen the security of land tenure for women, unfair land-use practices continue to undermine gains made towards the realization of gender equality.

The e-mail from the future attests to ‘an equal chance of acquiring a modern education (and owning a farm or an agribusiness) for the girl child, and African mothers having access to tractors and irrigation systems that can be easily assembled’, now with the coronavirus, there is a fear that a consequence of the virus will be that women will be even less likely to make claims or register their land rights.

I am reminded of the Kilimanjaro Initiative, a rural women’s mobilization from across Africa that culminated at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro in October 2016. Over 500 small scale women farmers sacrificed their time to travel by road from different parts of Africa to meet in Arusha, Tanzania, some risking their lives to scale the heights of Mt Kilimanjaro to raise their voice on tenure security for women.

As a result, the women land rights charter of demands was developed based on the African Union legal frameworks on women’s land rights such as the Maputo protocol, the AU guiding principles on large scale land Based Investment in Africa, “The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, and the African Union framework guidelines on land policy.

I am nostalgic, as I remember my sleepless nights as the coordinator of this iconic moment, hoping the women would come back safe from summiting Africa’s highest mountain. The women marked it as a symbol to show the struggle they undergo while pursuing their land rights.

Good land governance is cited as critical to achieving Agenda 2063 and the recommendation is that member states ‘move towards allocation of 30% of land to women to improve the rights of women to land through legislative and other mechanisms’. Notably, there have been some gains for African women in terms of ownership of land and the implementation of policies that compel women’s rights to land. One example is that of Rwanda, where we have heard a progressive approach towards the achievement of women’s land rights and the joint titling law. Rwanda’s example gives me hope in seeing the day when across the continent, women farmers will be liberated from cultural practices and retrogressive laws that impede them from their rights to land access and ownership.

Food Security

Food security greatly depends on effective land management and governance as these give food producers confidence to produce sustainably. Currently, food producers and small-scale farmers are unable to continue with their farm work because of restricted movement, a risk to food and nutrition security that could lead to loss of lives. However, this can be avoided if we put women and their role in food production at the center of the debate. Coronavirus is also seriously disrupting African food systems. Women who contribute 70 percent of Africa’s food production and make up 80–90 percent of those involved in food processing, storage, and transportation, despite owning less land than men, again are on the receiving end.

Human rights defenders in the struggle

Human rights defenders are key allies in addressing the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, they should be recognized and protected without discrimination. Reports of land rights defenders being arrested by the police during the lockdown, such as documented in Uganda and Cameroon are retrogressive and should be addressed immediately, especially given that these activists are going out of their way to protect the rights of the vulnerable despite the quarantine measures which make it difficult for the defenders facing threats to file complaints with police and access judicial remedies.

While we know that the widespread closure of the courtrooms due to public health safety concerns occasioned by the virus has brought to a halt court services resulting in delays in delivery of court judgment or cancellation of judgment for most vulnerable groups, it is my hope that actors will mobilize support to bring relief to the defenders across the continent who are wrongfully detained for speaking up for the rights of vulnerable groups such as women who may be subject to familial land grabbing as a result of the virus. The focus must shift to other noble mechanisms such as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), or the adoption of technology to expedite justice.

Way forward?

The issues I raise calls for immediate action by governments. They should recognize women’s fundamental role in the food system and in response to the coronavirus crisis. In doing so, they should acknowledge and protect women’s land rights now more than ever.

The letter from the future reads ‘…The status of women, the tillers of the soil by tradition, rose exponentially..It is my hope that governments will put in place measures now and post the pandemic to implement all commitments to realize this. The latest joint declaration by Agriculture Ministers from Africa in response to CORONAVIRUS, committed to supporting access to food and nutrition for Africa’s most vulnerable including women. This is one step in the right direction.

Governments must ensure that all coronavirus responses are gender-responsive. Measures should consider targeted support to rural women farmers, facilitate access to a safe market environment, and farm inputs and guarantee ease in selling farm produce. This is the time to fully support the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) agricultural framework to ensure we have enough food reserves during and post the virus. When the leaders of 2063 refer to the email from 2063, the distant future only hoped for, will be the reality.