Negotiating Land Rights to Redress Land Wrongs: Women in Africa’s Land Reforms


Chigbu, Uchendu Eugene. 2020. “Negotiating Land Rights to Redress Land Wrongs: Women in Africa’s Land Reforms.” Rethinking Land Reform in Africa: New Ideas, Opportunities and Challenges. African Natural Resource Centre / African Development Bank.

Author: Uchendu Eugene Chigbu


Centuries of Arabisation and Europeanisation of Africa —followed by decades of postindependence Americanisation—has led to the balkanisation of land uses. It has also resulted in the disruption and disorientation of land tenure systems in Africa. Remedial or restitutive actions that began in the post-independence history of the continent have focused on conceptualising and implementing land reforms. These reforms combine legal and social efforts to raise the share of the land and property rights of disadvantaged groups. Most countries (re)structured processes to (re)align their land tenure systems to face the emerging land challenges from the mid-twentieth-century to the twenty-first-century world. Insecure land rights are a major part of those challenges. Land rights are “socially or legally recognised entitlements to access, use and control areas of land and related natural resources” while property rights include “the recognized interests in land or property vested in an individual or group” which “can apply separately to land or development on it” (UN-Habitat 2008, p.5).
Over the past fifty years, African countries have initiated and implemented various land reforms at different times, at unprecedented rates and on varying ideological differences, attitudes, opinions, and preferences. Accompanying all of these situations (at least at the policy and intellectual levels) is the contestation on whether these reforms should serve as suitable instruments for engendering equity and equality in land ownership. These debates have remained within Africa to date. However, there seems to be some consensus that these reforms, however conceived or implemented, should promote and secure land and property rights for all. This manifests in the way national governments embrace land reform as either an instrument for land redistribution and remediation or as a prerequisite for socio-economic development going forward. It is not surprising that many of these governments embark on reforms on the assumption that “greater equity and enhanced efficiency and productivity” in land access will “flow directly from such a process” (Werner 1999, p.314; Cousins 2018).
While these reforms are usually instituted to widen the margins of land and property rights of citizens, some of them have also brought or extended land wrongs. Land or property wrongs refers to the socially or legally motivated disentitlements or deprivations to access, use and control of land and related natural resources. Improvement in land and property rights occurs when land reforms lead to the protection of citizens’ basic rights to own, use and exercise proprietary interests in land. Emergence of land wrongs is when land reforms endanger the security of tenure of citizens.
Achieving sustainable development will not be realistic in Africa without women’s empowerment. “Women’s empowerment is not feasible without equality of the sexes. This makes gender parity a precondition for Africa’s development” (Chigbu 2016, p.37). In the context of land rights and land wrongs, the protection (and expansion) of women’s rights to access and use of land securely (as a morally justified, and legally and socially acceptable norm) remains problematic in Africa. Women still face “systematic disadvantage in land rights because of laws, customs and norms that either exclude them from tenure or ownership or make their rights contingent on the relationship with a male relative or spouse” (United Nations Women 2015, p.111). Perhaps many of the past and ongoing reforms have either failed or are simply slow in bridging the “enormous divide between land access for men and women”, and the insecurity of tenure that affect all citizens, but especially women (Chigbu 2019a, p.39).
Three questions arising from these situations are: (1) How have land reforms addressed women’s land rights in theory? (2) How have the reforms impacted on women in practice? (3) How can women’s land rights be improved through future land reform? Exploring these questions may lead to ideas for improving women’s land rights situations in Africa. A starting point for investigation is the review of explorative literature outlining the concept of land (and property) rights and wrongs in the context of land reforms in Africa.

Topics: Gender, Women, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 2020

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