Published daily by the Lowy Institute

In India and Africa, women farmers lack land rights

Despite significant participation in agriculture, women across both regions face similar obstacles to ownership.

Women farmers plow their fields in Gnoungouya Village, Guinea (World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr)
Women farmers plow their fields in Gnoungouya Village, Guinea (World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr)
Published 3 Jun 2020 

In October 2016, women from across the African continent met at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with a charter of demands pushing for women’s right to use, control, own, inherit and dispose land. The Women2Kilimanjaro hike’s demand for more inclusive land rights proved not to be in vain: in April 2017, the African Union (AU) endorsed the Pan-African Women’s Charter on Land. This endorsement, while not binding, gives rural women a legal recognition and serves as a step towards more inclusive land laws. Coupled with the 2016 AU pledge to ensure that women make up 30% of landowners by 2025, this action shows that the AU recognises the plight of rural women and intends to direct more attention to their issues.

In a similar fashion, in November 2018, more than 10,000 farmers from across India participated in the Dilli Challo (On to Delhi) or Kisan Mukti (Farmer’s Liberation) march. A sizeable contingent of female farmers took part in the march, pushing for the Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill. As more than 87% of women in agriculture do not own the land that they work on, they are classified as “cultivators” or “agricultural labourers”, as opposed to the owners of the land, who are simply called farmers. Recognising women as farmers is crucial for them to receive state support or financial assistance. However, the bill, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha (India’s Upper House) by renowned agricultural scientist Professor M S Swaminathan, lapsed in 2013. There have been many other smaller efforts by women, but the government has yet to take their demands seriously and pass the bill.

Despite the different results of these protests – owing largely to the varying time spans that women have been fighting for their rights – these large-scale agitations reflect the increasing feminisation of agriculture in India and Africa. The proportion of women in agriculture vis-à-vis men has been increasing, with women now involved in almost all aspects of agriculture, from sowing and irrigation to harvesting and weeding.

Comparing India and Africa in such a way brings out interesting similarities in terms of culture, and it also sheds light on possible policy directions. Both India and the African sub-continent built their economies on agriculture and still rely heavily on agriculture for food security, nutrition and employment. Yet, female farmers in both of these regions are hampered by societal, customary and legal restraints.

Both regions largely see men controlling land rights and women accessing land through a male relative, mostly her father or husband. Women seldom have direct access to land and are reliant on inheritance to gain access to land.

Despite the potential for women farmers to yield 20–30% more crops when they have access to productive assets such as land, women own less than 20% of land globally. In Rwanda, for example, landowning women were 12% more likely to take loans for the purpose of building businesses. Similarly, in India, stable land rights are predicted to result in an 11% increase in the number of women shifting from subsistence farming to selling their crops on the market.

While India and nearly every African country have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and approved other progressive charters and laws on the rights of female farmers (such as the African charter on human and peoples’ rights and the amendment to the Hindu Succession Act 2005), the biggest hurdle for female farmers is deep-rooted cultures of patriarchy. 

In terms of land rights, both regions largely see men controlling land rights and women accessing land through a male relative, mostly her father or husband. Women seldom have direct access to land and are reliant on inheritance to gain access to land. In many African countries, unmarried women have access to their fathers’ land, but lose that access when they get married, based on the assumption that they can access their husbands’ land. However, when the husband passes on, his land gets transferred to sons or other male relatives within the family, rather than to his wife.

Similarly, even in matrilineal Indian societies, when a woman gets married, her assets are immediately transferred to her husband’s family, while her brothers are still eligible to receive their parents’ property. While men are considered household heads in both cases, the multitude of polygamous households in Africa has resulted in an added competition between senior and junior wives, their children and their multiple sets of in-laws. In this case, the male head has authority to devolve his land as per his wishes. 

The situation for widows in India and across Africa is equally demoralising. A study conducted in Zambia indicated that more than a third of widows lost access to their family land when their husbands passed on, and among women who did receive land, they received the smallest plots. In India, when a father relinquishes his right to a joint property, his sons hold rights to the property while his widow, mother or daughters do not. In addition, if the father decides to give or will his share to his sons, the rights of his widow, mother or daughters are nullified.

A woman farmer winnows sorghum grains in Mahboobnagar District of Andhra Pradesh, India (ICRISAT/Flickr)

Most women are unaware about their legal rights to inherit or claim their “rightful” property. For instance, according to a 2018 survey by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MKAM), out of 505 female farmers whose husbands committed suicide, 40% of widows did not obtain rights to the farm they operated. Out of this 40%, one third did not know they were entitled to a pension. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, the government amended the inheritance law to allow the surviving spouse to be the legitimate heir, but again, a lack of awareness translates into many women losing land that is rightfully theirs.

Of greater significance, in India and much of Africa customary laws take precedence over codified, Western laws. As a result, women are deprived of constitutional protections and receive little or no share in family property. For instance, the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 stated that “any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner”. This was amended in 2005 to give women of all castes and sects equal rights. According to this act, a daughter would now have a birth right to her parent’s joint property the same way a son does. However, if the law had been implemented fully, women should have received an average of 11.88 decimals of land. Instead, women have only received 0.93 decimals of land. Village officials who implement these laws are also biased in the perception that men should be recipients of land and resources, and be the primary farmer, even if the woman does more work in the field.

Similar experiences take place in Africa, where, for example, the Kenyan Succession Act stipulates that men and women have equal rights to inheritance. However, it also mentions that if the man passes on without writing a will, the customary law will prevail. Given that men in Kenya rarely write wills, the equality provisions of the Succession Act seldom apply and are not implemented. Similarly, in 1997, Mozambique implemented a law entitling women to land and property access. Again, implementation was difficult, as traditional courts still gave men priority, labelling them as household head and giving them complete authority over the land.

Given the common issues faced by female farmers across both regions, it is not surprising that solutions proposed by advocates and scholars have been similar. Recommendations include having the names of both husband and wife as owners on land title deeds, which ensures women are in land titles of the state. This arguably gives women more decision-making power, better ability to provide the family with food and education, and greater protection against domestic violence.

Yet these measures fail to address issues of implementation. When women have access to a plot through men, they are obliged to give the revenue from farm sales to a male, and they have little control over how the money is used. There is no guarantee that including women in title deeds will empower them to overrule traditional customs and insist on their rights. Therefore, while the inclusion of women in title deeds is crucial to legitimising their rights, such action needs to be paired with awareness and support. States should ensure that women are fully informed of their land rights and that they have access to the justice system. Women’s land rights should also be legally recognised and guaranteed by state law, regardless of customary laws.

The feasibility of this suggestion is well demonstrated through a Nicaraguan case study, where the joint titling program of the 1980s gave women equal rights to land. In 1995, law 209 mentioned that men and women had an equal right to receive land titles and also highlighted the option for couples to apply for joint title. In 1997, it was made mandatory for families receiving land titles under the state agrarian reform to include the names of both husband and wife. As a consequence, the percentage of land titles to women increased from 10% in the 80s, to 25% from 1992–96, and 42% from 1997–2000.

What this experience makes clear is that more than the concept of joint titling, it is the strong political will of the government and state institutions that needs to be ascertained as well.

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