How would you like your land served up Ma?am?

Date: January 1, 1970
  • SHARE:

After years of working in the field of women?s rights, I am now more firmly convinced than ever that the rights-based approach and multiple strategies holds the best possibilities to realise African women?s land rights.

After years of working in the field of women’s rights, I am now more firmly convinced than ever that the rights-based approach holds the best possibilities for the realisation of African women’s land rights.

I also believe that we should not take a one size fits all approach. My preferred option is the “land laws menu.” How would you like yours done Ma’am? Is it going to be joint ownership, co-ownership, consent (when he wants to sell the land) or the right to tag along (whenever he buys, you own)? Can we start thinking about alternative forms of land tenure that cater for the realities we are trying to address?

It is true that little has changed substantively over the past 10 years as far as women’s land rights are concerned. Women still do not have land rights and where they exist they lack security of tenure and the means to protect these rights.

This is not because nothing has been done: in fact a lot has happened. Research has been commissioned, conferences hosted, alliances built, findings and reports published, new laws introduced and Constitutions amended. Why then, have all of these efforts not been able to yield the desired outcome?

Land is being sold for ridiculous amounts of money that everyone agrees that the majority of African women do not have. The participation in the free market is more imaginary than real as the insurmountable obstacles that bars women from participating in the land market continue to exist.

The preconditions for subsidies for obtaining land designated for vulnerable groups, which often include women and children, have often proven too cumbersome. In some places, even if a woman can afford to buy her own land she is still not able to own it because there are laws that prohibit women from being landowners.

Doomsayers have been quick to point out that the law is an inadequate tool in altering societal relations. Land is a part and parcel of those relations.

As dangerous as the law may be if not correctly used, I still vote for the law. But a number of issues need to be taken into consideration when land laws are up for discussion.

For a start, women’s human rights cannot be adequately protected for as long as there are constitutional provisions that allow personal laws to reach beyond constitutional provisions that guarantee citizens the right not to be discriminated against. We tend to underestimate the significance of personal laws on land rights.

Land rights for women have often been tied to their marital status. For any legislative intervention to be effective it needs to respond to this reality.

If legislative reform does not have at its heart the protection of women’s rights you can insert all the women you want in the legislation, it will not help.

Unfortunately, most of the recent legislation starts off with “gender neutral” provisions. The eagerness to run with anyone’s agenda from donors to insurance companies, banks and other interest groups who reject change is problematic.

The new land laws that have been passed have gone out of their way to protect or at least to try and protect married women, “the deserving ones”. The other categories, which are rapidly growing (widowed, single and divorced women) continue to be overlooked in our lobbying efforts.

Somehow it sounds easier and more comfortable to present married women as a “vulnerable group” than tackle the other categories.

The rural-urban divide, when used against our cause, can also be a setback. The labeling of advocacy groups as a bunch of women from the cities who do not understand the lived reality of rural women does not help to advance the cause.

Shouldn’t we be getting tired of these tactics and disassociate ourselves from all claims of representation to make progress?

We also need to be aware that diverse needs require varied solutions. African women don’t always come in the form of victims. Sometimes they have land and need protection from arbitrary deprivation of that land. This is why, to my mind, the flexible “menu” option makes sense if we are to get out of the rut we are in: and start to make some progress 10 years after Beijing.

Sibongile Ndashe is an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

Contact Jan Moolman at for more information.

Comment on How would you like your land served up Ma?am?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *