Securing Land Rights for Women


Daley, Elizabeth, and Birgit Englert. 2010. “Securing Land Rights for Women.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 4 (1): 91-113.

Authors: Elizabeth Daley, Birgit Englert


This collection of papers on Securing Women's Land Rights presents five articles relating to eastern Africa. Four of these illustrate practical approaches to securing land rights for women in distinct situations: law-making for women's land rights (Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda); land tenure reform in practice (Rwanda); women's rights under pastoral land tenure (Ethiopia); and women's rights in areas of matrilineal-matrilocal land tenure (Malawi). This article serves as an overall introduction to the subject, reviewing past issues and highlighting new ones, and setting out the shape of a positive, pragmatic approach to securing women's land rights in eastern Africa. Five key themes emerge: the role of customary institutions; the continuing central role of legislation as a foundation for changing custom; issues of gender equity and equitability, and underlying goals; the challenges of reform implementation and of growing women's confidence to claim their rights; and the importance of encouraging effective collaboration among all those working in the field of women's land rights. The article calls for a stronger focus on gender equity - on securing equal land rights for both women and men - in order to achieve sustainable positive change in broader social and political relations.


Keywords: women, land rights, land tenure reform, gender, gender equity


  • The article provides a comprehensive overview of land policy reforms that have taken place in Eastern Africa over the last two decades, including reforms in Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zamia, Kenya and Uganda. It mentions the need to differentiate, not only between the situations in different African countries, but also between the local variations within most countries. It also stresses the need to consider women’s land tenure security in the broadest sense.
  • It confronts the assumption that women’s land rights are always  secondary and “fragile” and suggests that attention must also be paid to the land rights of men.\
  • It also outlines the relatively consistent policies of the World Bank in its 2003 publication of Land Policies for Growth and Development, which: marked a step forward in World Bank thinking on women’s land rights,” (92)
  • Land tenure privatisation is now swinging back to the original straightforward narrowing of customary land rights into private –and, in many cases, corporate –hands. The article reviews key land tenure thinkers of past decade (i.e. economists De Soto and Collier) and states that regardless of De Soto’s thesis (suggested formally registered property rights open the way to the collateralisation of land assets, providing the basis for the creation of capital), evidence from the ground suggests that small holders show little interest in mortgaging their land; also disputes Collier, stresses connection between women’s land rights and food security.


“women in eastern Africa are not powerless actors but find creative means to claim and ensure their rights to land.”(104)

“increasing individualization and commoditization of land rights has occurred and private rights of use and occupancy within customary tenure have become increasingly the norm” (94)

“by no means are all women losing out from the increasing commoditisation of land: some manage to take advantage of the opportunities provided by commoditisation to acquire their own land through purchase, while the development of land rental markets creates additional opportunities for women to gain access to land” (94)

“ in many respects the Bank’s ‘‘new’’ land policy remained the same through its emphasis on economic growth as the main justification for land reform and promotion of land titling as a means to make credit available to smallholders the Bank’s former thinking on land.” ( 92)

“particularly [land rights] […]of women among refugee and internally displaced populations and of the women who stay at home while men go off to fight. Humanitarian agencies have only recently begun to grapple with land issues, and the specifics of women’s land rights in immediate post-conflict situations have yet to be seriously addressed.”(94)

“commoditisation, economic and rural-urban change, conflict (and post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation), the spread of HIV/AIDS, and the increasing ‘‘privatization’’ of land tenure” (92)

"Impact of privitization: twentieth century in eastern Africa by land tenure reforms which introduced land registration on the basis of formal survey in the pursuit of agricultural development, commencing in Kenya in 1954.24 This private registration of land  the narrowing of broad customary rights to ownership rights (title) in the hands of a single (usually male) person  became the dominant approach to African land law and administration, despite numerous criticisms of its effectiveness in achieving its goals, and of its negative impact on marginalising women’s rights." (94)

“the importance of land markets and individual tenure as the essential ingredients for agricultural productivity and growth’’ (94)

"Gender issues are of course intimately bound up in struggles over power and authority, particularly in relation to land." (97)

“Peters thus fears that equal inheritance combined with future land ownership registration and the practice of men being considered as the head of the household will lead to serious reductions in land tenure security for a great many women in the matrilineal-matrilocal areas of southern Malawi, while simultaneously acknowledging that gains may come for women in other (patrilineal) areas of Malawi. Peters therefore calls for consideration of alternatives to straightforward land titling programmes in matrilineal areas, and more generally for the pursuit of legal protection and registration of the sorts of overlapping claims to land found in existing customary tenure arrangements.” (103)

The question remains as to whether gender equitable and gender equal legal provisions can actually be implemented in practice” (103)

Topics: Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equity, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, East Africa

Year: 2010

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