Commentary

To transform society, give women access to land

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By Dorothy Tuma

Posted  Friday, March 21   2014 at  12:04
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On March 8, the world celebrated the 103rd International Women’s Day under the theme ‘Inspiring Change’, and honoured women’s economic, political, and social achievements. It was wonderful to see more women in leadership positions in new spheres and inspiring to witness their accomplishments.
As I joined in the celebrations, I could not help but recall a saying one often hears in business management circles: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” East Africa needs to deliberately track the progress of women along the path to increased achievement.

A series of World Bank studies found that women typically invest 90 per cent of their earnings in health, education and family well-being versus 30 to 40 per cent for men. Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report concluded that significant economic recovery and growth cannot occur without the engagement, empowerment and contribution of women and girls.

In East Africa, the majority of women and girls still have limited access to economic opportunities and no control over economic resources. So how will their increased engagement, empowerment and contribution occur? Given that 80 per cent of East Africa’s population is rural-based and lives off the land, let us focus on women’s access to and ownership of land.

According to the University College of London’s Institute for Global Health Commission, women grow 80 per cent of Africa’s food but less than 10 per cent of them hold title to land or enjoy security of tenure.
Consider the example of Kenya, where in spite of a male-to-female ratio of 1:1, only 5 per cent of land title deeds are jointly held by men and women and only 1 per cent is held solely by women.

Most women do not influence the manner in which the land they till is used (for example selecting the crops to be farmed or using the land as collateral for a commercial loan) and are prohibited from determining how the income generated from their activities on the land is spent.

As a result, women are discouraged from reaching their full economic potential and their efforts on the land are dismissed as simply a woman’s role in the family.

But in Rwanda, women singly or jointly own 93 per cent of public land. Numerous studies show that women who know they will enjoy the fruits of their labour are both highly motivated to be productive and also have greater control over household incomes and welfare.

As already mentioned, women tend to invest a higher percentage of their earnings in their family’s welfare. Is it any wonder then that Rwanda is the highest ranked East African country on a number of global economic indicators?

In spite of the evidence demonstrating the value of giving women increased control over productive resources, East Africa is doing little to track and accelerate women’s resource control. Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office is the only national institution in the region that deliberately monitors the separate progress of both men and women on key development indicators. The office also publishes an annual gender status report used to inform policy decisions.

While it is imperative that we separately track men and women’s progress in economic achievement, it is equally important that we help our citizenry view women’s roles in a new light.

A 2011 International Food Policy Research Institute study found that although women in Uganda have the legal right to own and inherit land, in practice, they typically access land through their husbands or sons. This is one of many cultural norms shaping our view of women. When that husband or son dies, it is still common for the men in his extended family to strip his defenceless widow or mother of the land he left behind.

Both men and women in the target communities must be involved when initiatives to narrow the gaps between them are being developed and introduced. It is pointless to tell women participating in a land rights programme that they can legally inherit and own land if male landowners neither know about the law nor see any value in naming a female heir.

I propose three ways for East African countries to better inspire change going forward.

First, make the separate tracking of the economic, social and political progress of men and women mandatory. This will clearly identify the gaps. Each country will need to tailor its own approach but many lessons may also be learned from Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office.

Second, design and roll out interventions like new policies, laws or programmes to narrow the gaps identified above. Intervention design should be collaborative, involving policy makers, target communities and civil society as relevant.

Finally, support the above suggestions by promoting positive and inspiring women’s stories. Portrayals of women should encourage society to view women as the capable contributors they are and can become.

Going forward, it would be highly beneficial for East Africa’s governments to prioritise the tracking and acceleration of women’s economic, political and social contributions. It is a proven recipe for significant economic growth.

Ms Tuma is a business consultant.