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Gender, Ethnicity and Class: “Burying Otieno” Revisited


Gordon, April. 1995. "Gender, Ethnicity and Class in Kenya: “Burying Otieno” Revisited.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 20 (41): 883- 912.

Author: April Gordon


In the Summer 1991 issue of Signs, Patricia Stamp published an excellent analysis of a legal controversy in Kenya. Titled "Burying Otieno: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity in Kenya," Stamp's article focused on the place of customary versus common law, the primacy of ethnicity versus national identity, and the power of patriarchy over women's rights in Kenya. Stamp also discussed feminist politics, concluding that the results of the Otieno case would politicize many Kenyan women and be the terrain for future feminist struggle in Africa (Stamp 1991, 832-33). Although all of these issues are important, I wish to focus in this article on a topic - the importance of class as well as gender and ethnicity in the Otieno case- that Stamp did not discuss in depth in her analysis of a highly complex social reality. This complexity and the variety of meanings it can have are certainly demonstrated in the Otieno case by the widespread journalistic, popular, and scholarly commentary it has generated both within and outside of Kenya. My purpose, then, is to extend these other analyses.

Keywords: social reality, women's rights, land rights, Property Rights, patriarchy



"Gordon argues that the issues revealed in the Otieno case are more complex than an unambiguous conflict between patriarchy and women’s rights. It demonstrates that: “the often assumed unity in women’s struggles based on gender can overlook that there are fundamental differences among women that divide them, especially differences of class, race, religion, and ethnicity.” (885)

"Moreover, some women stand to gain more or to benefit at the expense of other women from particular women’s rights agendas. She argues that by examining how class and ethnicity as well as gender interrelate in Kenya: “we can get a better understanding of both men’s and women’s reactions to the Otieno case and what interests are at stake.” (886)

"Gordon takes Stamp’s point about Wambui being viewed as an individual and not as part of a group (whether gender or clan) and attributes it to something other than women being viewed as part of the household sphere, stating that: “although Wambui Otieno saw herself as fighting for women’s rights in Kenya, my view is that she represents primarily the interests of Africa’s emerging but not yet hegemonic capitalist classes rather than African women in general.” (886)

“Since the colonial penetration of Africa, precapitalist African social institutions and modes of production have been modified and used to further the interests of global capitalism and foreign and African elites. The resulting mode of production, which sustains dependent, underdeveloped capitalist development, is neither precapitalist nor capitalist but a mixture. And its success depends on the perpetuation of so-called traditional kinship and gender relations rooted in ties of ethnicity and the patriarchal extended family.” (887)

Topics: Class, Ethnicity, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, East Africa Countries: Kenya

Year: 1995

Questioning Women’s Solidarity: The Case of Land Rights, Santal Parganas, Jharkhand, India


Rao, Nitya. 2005. “Questioning Women’s Solidarity: The Case of Land Rights, Santal Parganas, Jharkhand, India.” Journal of Development Studies 43 (3): 353- 375.

Author: Nitya Rao


Women's land rights have been on the policy agenda in India for at least the last 20 years. Yet not much has happened on the ground. Why have not women mobilised to claim rights to land? What have been the limits to collective action by women around land rights? Through fieldwork in the Santal Parganas, Jharkhand, India, this article explores these questions. Firstly, the socially embedded nature of land as a resource and the mutuality and interdependence between men and women in the productive use of land needs to be recognised. Consequently, more than gender identities, it is other cross-cutting identities of ethnicity, education, kinship relations and marital status that both motivate women to stake their claims to land as well as oppose the claims of other women and men. Secondly, women's land claims seem to have a chance of becoming effective only if they have some male support, hence rather than aligning with other women, those who are serious in their claims seek to build alliances with men, particularly those able to influence the argument in their favour. Just as amongst women, there is considerable evidence to show that men too adopt different subject-positions depending on their own experience and context. Finally, by attempting to present women's land claims as a gender issue, not only is it found that women are unwilling to mobilise around this issue, but there is also an enhanced resistance from men.

Keywords: women's land rights, collective action, men, gender, mobilization

Topics: Education, Ethnicity, Gender, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: India

Year: 2005

Está listo (Are you ready)? Gender, Race and Land Registration in the Río Plántano Biosphere Reserve


Mollett, Sharlene. 2010. "Está listo (Are you ready)? Gender, Race and Land Registration in the Río Plántano Biosphere Reserve.” Gender, Place and Culture 17 (3): 357-375.

Author: Sharlene Mollett


Geographers and political ecologists are paying increased attention to the ways in which conservation policies disrupt indigenous customary tenure arrangements. However, much less attention is given to the particular ways protected area management shapes natural resource access for indigenous women. With this in mind, this article examines how a recently proposed state land project in Honduras, Catastro y Regularización, requires that Miskito residents individuate collective family lands in the interests of 'sustainable development' and 'biodiversity protection'. In the debates that followed the project's announcement, Miskito women feared that such measures would erase their customary access to family lands. As the state's project seeks to re-order Reserve land, intra-Miskito struggles intensified among villagers. Such struggles are not only gendered but are shaped by longstanding processes of racialization in Honduras and the Mosquitia region. Drawing upon ethnographic research, I argue that Miskito women's subjectivity and rights to customary family holdings are informed by their ability to make 'patriarchal bargains' with Miskito men inside the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. Such findings suggest that scholars and policy makers continue to reflect on the ways global conservation and sustainable development practices may undermine indigenous customary tenure securities, whether intentionally or not.

Keywords: indigenous peoples, gender, land registration, protected areas, racialization

Topics: Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Indigenous, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Land Tenure, Race, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Americas, Central America Countries: Honduras

Year: 2010

Our Daughters Inherit our Land, but our Sons Use Their Wives’ Fields: Matrilineal-Matrilocal Land Tenure and the New Land Policy in Malawi


Peters, Pauline E. 2010. “Our Daughters Inherit our Land, but our Sons Use Their Wives’ Fields: Matrilineal-Matrilocal Land Tenure and the New Land Policy in Malawi.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 4 (1): 179-199.

Author: Pauline E. Peters


Renewed efforts in recent years to reform land tenure policy in Sub-Saharan African countries have - in some cases - included provisions aimed at improving women's land rights. The premise of such provisions is that women's land rights under customary tenure are fragile, threatened, and/or in the process of being undermined. The matrilineal-matrilocal areas in Southern Malawi described here present a counter case. Only daughters are the heirs of their matrilineage's land, while sons use their wives' land or, in special circumstances, have temporary use of fields belonging to their female matrikin. This pattern has prevailed in the face of a long and continuing history of prejudice against matriliny. Now, a new land policy, not yet passed into law, includes an explicit aim to protect and improve land rights for women. Yet the means selected by the policy - land inheritance by both sons and daughters and extension of greater authority to traditional leaders in the administration of land - will be likely, if implemented, to have opposite effects in matrilineal-matrilocal areas.

Keywords: matrilineal-matrilocal, land tenure, settlement schemes, gender equity, land policy


  • This article is significant in that it confronts the notion that women’s land rights are always “secondary” and “fragile” through examining a matrilineal-matrilocal area where women have the dominant position in land inheritance, instead of the well documented cases of patrilineal-patrilocal areas, where men tend to be in control of land allocation. It highlights the need to consider how land policies intended to strengthen the tenure security of women can, in certain locations, serve to decrease tenure security in areas where women already have a dominant position in land administration. However in arguing that the policy will have a negative impact on women’s control over land rights in matrilineal areas, Peters neglects the positive effects that the new land law will have in improving the tenure security of men in matrilineal areas, increasing gender equity in land rights.
  • Peters defines matrilineal and matrilocal principles: “that is, inheritance and succession run through the female line so that children are members of their mother's lineage, the heir to a male authority holder is his sister's son, and, on marriage, husbands move to their wives' village.” (182)
  • Impact of policy on matrilineal areas: The policy provides for all children, irrespective of sex, to inherit land from their parents. Paradoxically, if actually implemented, this would greatly reduce women's existing rights in matrilineal-matrilocal areas by including sons as equal heirs, even though it may provide more rights for some women in patrilineal-patrilocal areas.
  • Responding to claims that policy would enhance gender equity in land acquisition in both patrilineal and matrilineal social systems, the author says it "appears laudable. However, not only would such changes be a 'departure from existing norms and practices' and hence likely to stimulate 'esistance', but, if put into practice, they would fundamentally reshape kinship and residence patterns and the multiple social relations involved therein.” (191)


“In the many domains of life governed by kinship in this matrilineal-matrilocal area, women exercise considerable authority alongside their brothers. Thus, the brother who is selected as the mwini mbumba is consulted by his sisters in times of important decisions, such as the treatment of an illness, marriage disputes, funeral arrangements, and so on. But he works closely with his sisters in deciding these matters even though he announces the final decision. Beyond these kinship and village domains, however, male authority is the norm in Malawi, and women are largely marginalized.” (184)

“The loss to women which has been documented in other countries undergoing registration and titling of land, would be doubly problematic in Malawi because, in the name of improving women's secure access to land, as currently formulated it will dispossess women in matrilineal-matrilocal areas who currently have highly secure, indeed privileged, rights in comparison with men's.” (194)

Topics: Gender, Women, Men, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Gender Equity, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: Malawi

Year: 2010

The Impact of Privatization on Gender and Property Rights in Africa


Lastarria-Cornhiel, Susana. 1997. “The Impact of Privatization on Gender and Property Rights in Africa.” World Development 25 (8): 1317-33.

Author: Susana Lastarria-Cornhiel


This paper explores the transformation of customary tenure systems and their impact on women's rights to land in Africa. Emphasis is placed on the diversity of land rights within customary tenure systems, the different institutions and structures (e.g., inheritance, marriage) that influence rights to land, and the trend toward uniformity and increasing patrilineal control. With privatization, different rights to land have become concentrated in the hands of those persons (such as community leaders, male household heads) who are able to successfully claim their ownership right to land, while other persons (such as poor rural women, ethnic minorities) lose the few rights they had and generally are not able to participate fully in the land market. 

Keywords: privatization, women's land rights, ownership to land, gender, customary law

Topics: Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 1997

Human Rights, Formalization and Women’s Land Rights in Southern and Eastern Africa


Ikdahl, Ingunn, Anne Hellum Randi Kaarhus, Tor A. Benjaminsen, and Patricia Kameri-Mbote. 2005. Human Rights, Formalization and Women’s Land Rights in Southern and Eastern Africa. 26. Aas, Norway: Noragric. 

Authors: Ingunn Ikdahl, Anne Hellum, Randi Kaarhus, Tor A. Benjaminsen, Patricia Kameri-Mbote

Keywords: development, economics, law, women's land rights, women, International actors


  • Discusses both the human rights-based approach and market-based approach and their relevance to equal land rights,  reviews international actors and their influence on formalization and it gives an overview of land reforms in case study countries (Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe) and issues particular to each. The study’s focus on the Human Rights Based Approach means that it emphasizes clear and “legally enforceable rights” to land for individuals, an independent judiciary to guarantee women’s human rights (stresses “the efficacy of judicial activism as a means of implementing women’s human rights (Ikdahl et al., xv)) and a market based approach to development.  Research from Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe also demonstrates the capacity of customary law to change in response to changing social, economic and legal conditions. 
  • South Africa: Reviewed women’s land rights in Southern Africa from a human rights point of view focussing principally on the content of legislation and its implementation. Found that although there were some differences in the quality of legislation, the main problem was women’s lack of information on the property rights they legally enjoyed


Kenya: Formalisation of land rights in Kenya, actualised within a very patriarchal setting, has: “resulted in the exclusion of women from ownership of land.[...] only 5-7% of registered rights-holders are women—“demonstrates how formal and informal customary laws related to land transactions in family, marriage and inheritance matters often have a spill-over effect on registration of land rights that is detrimental to women.”(Ikdahl et al., x)“The case of Kenya raises the important question of whether “formalising the informal” is the best way to provide for women’s rights to land. The subjugation of customary rights and their systematic replacement with modern norms on tenure has not resulted in the obliterating of those norms, suggesting that formalising informality is not an easy task in a social context where informal norms are sometimes perceived to be more binding than formal ones.” (xiii)

“The case of Kenya raises the important question of whether “formalising the informal” is the best way to provide for women’s rights to land. The subjugation of customary rights and their systematic replacement with modern norms on tenure has not resulted in the obliterating of those norms, suggesting that formalising informality is not an easy task in a social context where informal norms are sometimes perceived to be more binding than formal ones.” (xiii)
Tanzania: “One of the aims of the land reform was to facilitate a market for land rights and the use of land as collateral. This idea is supported by the World Bank, international donors and Hernando de Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy. In this picture women’s land rights seem to be sidelined.” (2)
Mozambique: “The current legislation is a type of hybrid, through its recognition of both customary and statutory rights. Still, there is a lack of knowledge on how the present multiple and hybrid laws and practices actually impact on women’s rights to and access to land. The current focus on facilitating market mechanisms in the field of land rights does not adequately take into account concerns and questions related to ways women actually access land, for example, through inheritance.” (58)
Zimbabwe: “Land distribution, access to land and secure tenure have been issues since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980…” (xii)
“Although secure tenure does not rely solely on the law – the institutional and the infrastructural set-up are also critical – appropriate laws are a basic condition for an entitlement-based land regime. Most importantly, the Zimbabwean case shows that access to land, unless combined with political will to provide infrastructure, is not in itself a sufficient condition to improve the position of poor women.” (xiii)
Lack of measures that counterbalance male dominance results in poor access to information among women, thus constraining their participation and the exercise of their rights in land programmes carried out by both state and civil society.” (xv)
Instead of field cultivation, many women are intensively cultivating gardens close to where they live where the risks of loss are less. Gender equality in land reform calls for policies that are responsive to poor women’s agricultural activities”(68)

Topics: Economies, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Land Tenure, Households, International Organizations, Rights, Human Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa Countries: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe

Year: 2005

Policy Discourses on Women’s Land Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Implications of the Re-turn to the Customary


Whitehead, Ann, and Dzodzi Tsikata. 2003. “Policy Discourses on Women’s Land Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Implications of the Re-turn to the Customary.” Journal of Agrarian Change 3 (1-2): 67-112.

Authors: Ann Whitehead, Dzodzi Tsikata

Keywords: customary law, land tenure reform, women's land interests, legal pluralism


  • This article is unique in that it approaches legal pluralism and customary law from the perspective of women’s movements fighting for increased tenure security for women. The focus on women’s movements allows the authors to present divergent views of the utility of customary law and critiques of its ability to advance the interests of women.  
  • Authors argue customary ownership has been eroded since the time of colonialism, “making women's access to land significantly more precarious as the protections traditionally ensured by the clan system have been peeled away." (2) 
  • With increased commercialization of land and problems of land scarcity, local leaders have felt pressure to protect the clan system, and in so doing have placed even greater constraints on women's access to land. The article outlines the strategies women have used to respond to the growing interest in preserving customary laws, including land alliances and coalitions.
  • Discusses the amendments to the Ugandan Land Law in 2000 and how women’s movements were not successful in their push to include a co-ownership clause in the law. This clause was necessary because current legislation provides limited opportunities for women to own land, but was omitted at the last second: “Thus under customary law, which prevails in Uganda, a woman may have jointly acquired land with her husband and may have spent her entire adult life cultivating the land, but she cannot claim ownership of the property. If he dies, the land generally goes to the sons, but may also be left to daughters. Nevertheless, he may still leave the wife with no land and therefore no source of subsistence." (6)
  • Other strategies used: purchase of land, obtaining titles to land, taking claims to courts, and organized collective protest around legislation.


“Rather than seeing customary land practices as a basis on which to improve women’s access to land, they are advocating for rights-based systems that improve women’s ability to buy, own, sell, and obtain titles on land." (2)

“Because women's ties to land are mediated by their relationship to men in patrilineal societies, women's attempts to assert their rights in ways that challenge customary land tenure systems is often perceived as an attempt to disrupt gender relations, and society more generally." (2)

“Women, both rural and urban, have responded to the renewed interest in protecting customary laws and practices through collective strategies, which in Uganda have included a movement to ensure women's access to and ownership of land. Women have also adopted individual strategies of purchasing land and taking their land disputes to court. Purchasing land has, in effect, become a way of circumventing the traditional authorities." (2)

“Heightened protection of customary land tenure arrangements has taken place in a context where the customary and religious laws and practices that have been retained have selectively preserved those elements that subordinate women. These arrangements have included customary divorce and inheritance practices, keeping women as minors (e.g., Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe), bridewealth, widow inheritance (levirate), dehumanizing rituals pertaining to widows, early childhood marriage, polygamy, and female genital cutting." (3)

Topics: Civil Society, Clan, Coloniality/Post-Coloniality, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Land Tenure, Governance, Households, Political Economies, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 2003

Women, Land Struggles, and the Reconstruction of the Commons


Federici, Silvia. 2011. “Women, Land Struggles, and the Reconstruction of the Commons.” The Journal of Labor and Society 14 (1): 41-56

Author: Silvia Federici


This article examines the question of communal land property in Africa and its implications for women's land rights. Among the themes discussed are: the reforms of communal land tenure attempted by the World Bank in the 1990s, the critique of communal land relations that feminist organizations have made on account of their patriarchal discrimination against women, and the simultaneous efforts by landless rural and urban women to appropriate unused plots of public land for subsistence farming. While warning that the feminist attack on communal land ownership may strengthen the neo-liberal drive towards the privatization of land, the article looks at women's reclamation of unused public land for subsistence farming as the path to the constitution of new commons.


  • The article looks at two kinds of struggle that women are making in Africa that have a direct impact on the future of communal lands. First is the women’s movement that has developed in the 1990s to fight for land rights and which has declared its opposition to customary tenure because of its patriarchalism and discrimination against women. Second, are the struggles of women in urban areas who, in contrast to the prevailing trend toward privatization, take over plots of public land to farm them for their families’ subsistence.

  • There is much that we can learn from them as to the interests that are today shaping people’s relation to communal resources and the role that gender issues play in this process. These struggles show that egalitarianism is for commons a question of survival, for unequal power relations within them open the way to outside intervention and expropriation. In particular, they show that gender-based disparities generate dynamics that consolidate the dominance of the market over agricultural relations for they weaken the solidarity between women and men in front of the siege to which the commons are subjected by state business, and international institutions and lead many women to demand a strengthening of the very legal machine upon which land privatization depends. This is a lesson social justice movements need to learn if commons are not to remain pure ideals but are to become an object of struggle. The same movements can learn from the example of the women who instead of turning to the law, opt for direct action, farming on public land, thus subverting the neoliberal attempt to put a monetary gate around all natural resources and reaffirming the principle the earth is our common.

Topics: Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 2011

Patriarchy, Militarization, and the Gender Gap in Education: The Case of Pakistan


Azhar, Talat. 2009. "Patriarchy, Militarization, and the Gender Gap in Education: The Case of Pakistan." PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University.

Author: Talat Azhar


This study investigated the effects of patriarchy and militarization on women's educational attainment in Pakistan, where the literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, roughly two-thirds of all women cannot read or write, and even modest goals of girls' primary school enrollments seem elusive. Some progress has been made toward universal primary school enrollment, but by and large, secondary and tertiary education has remained beyond the reach of women in many parts of South Asia, including Pakistan. Efforts to improve women's education in Pakistan have focused on issues related to underdevelopment, poverty, and religious fundamentalism. Consequently, most literature addresses school, family, and community factors as the primary barriers to participation in education. My thesis represents the first attempt at exploring the power relations emerging from patriarchy and militarization, and their collective contribution to gender differences in educational attainment in Pakistan. Using data from the Adolescent and Youth Survey of Pakistan, conducted by the Population Council and the government of Pakistan in 2001-2002, I have investigated the reasons for persistence in women's low educational attainment. I used binary logistic regression to analyze three dependent variables: currently attending school, primary school completion, and ever attended school. Results of this study suggest that girls are at a distinct disadvantage relative to boys in educational attainment. Girls are also far less likely to seek an education because of perceived social undesirability of schooling and lack of empowerment to make decisions regarding their lives. A further analysis reveals that the disadvantages increase during the military government. The findings of this study have implications for providing policy direction toward achieving gender parity in education as a first step and subsequently striving for universal primary education in postcolonial conflict zones. More specifically, the findings point to a need to look beyond establishing girls' primary schools for a solution to the education crisis.

Topics: Age, Youth, Coloniality/Post-Coloniality, Education, Gender, Women, Girls, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Governance, Post-Conflict Governance, Military Forces & Armed Groups, Militarization, Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Pakistan

Year: 2009

The Payoff From Women’s Rights


Coleman, Isobel. 2004. “The Payoff From Women’s Rights.” Foreign Affairs 83 (3): 80-95.

Author: Isobel Coleman


Over the past decade, significant research has demonstrated what many have known for a long time: women are critical to economic development, active civil society, and good governance, especially in developing countries. Focusing on women is often the best way to reduce birth rates and child mortality, improve health, nutrition, and education, stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, build robust and self-sustaining community organizations, and encourage grassroots democracy. Much like human rights a generation ago, women's rights were long considered too controversial for mainstream foreign policy. For decades, international development agencies skirted gender issues in highly patriarchal societies. Now, however, they increasingly see women's empowerment as critical to their mandate. 

Keywords: economic development, women's rights, community health, gender issues, womens empowerment

Topics: Civil Society, Democracy / Democratization, Development, Economies, Education, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Governance, Health, HIV/AIDS, International Organizations, Rights, Women's Rights

Year: 2004


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