Africa: Women fight for equal land rights (Inter Press Service, International Herald Tribune, Afrique Renouveau)

| January 5, 2009

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Jacinta Wanjiku Kamau is a mother of eight. One day, her husband sold their family land without Mrs. Wanjiku’s consent. The law did not require him to consult his wife on the sale. It was the only land they had ever lived on, and it provided the family’s food and livelihood, but they would soon be forced to leave.

In Kenya, cases like that of Mrs. Wanjiku are increasing political pressure for a national land policy which would guarantee equal land rights to men and women. At this time, the bill is waiting for government approval.

Evelyn Opondo is a member of the Kenyan division of the Federation of Women Lawmakers (FIDA-Kenya). She says that the national land policy must be incorporated into the new constitution because, under the old constitution, the land and property rights of women were often violated, especially following divorce or separation.

However, it is not enough to simply put a land policy in place. Women also need to be educated about their rights. Marcela Villarreal is the director of the Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). She says that in Malawi, for example, the FAO is working with legislators and village chiefs to inform women of their right to own land. To help spread the word, the FAO gave radios to many women, allowing them to listen to radio programs in their local language.

FAO is also teaching women the importance of preparing wills. Without a will, a widow is often left with no choice but to marry another man from her husband’s family in order to maintain access to land to cultivate food. What’s more, if a woman is HIV-positive, she could be chased off the land entirely. That’s what happened to Lucia Namuganga in Uganda.

Several years ago, Mrs. Namuganga’s husband died after contracting HIV. About one month after his death, Mrs. Namuganga’s in-laws expelled her from her land, accusing her of infecting their son with the virus. Confused and frustrated, she decided to return to her parents’ land with her five children. She thought that she would be able to cultivate part of this land – but this was not the case.

Mrs. Namuganga’s older brother, who had inherited the land from their parents, refused to let her use the land. He told her to return to her in-laws. When Mrs. Namuganga insisted that she had the right to cultivate her father’s land, her brother threatened her with a knife. After this, a group of women from the Kalanga region of Uganda, advised her to take her brother to court to defend her land rights.

In Kenya, community organizations and other groups who provide homecare to people living with HIV and AIDS are intervening in such cases. When land is seized, they negotiate, usually with the men of the family, to let the women and girls maintain access to land and other property.

In Rwanda, the government adopted a law in 1999 giving women the same inheritance rights as men. This was contrary to Rwandan tradition, in which only male children could inherit property. Because of this law, the widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide were able to obtain land.