East Africa: Taking rural women’s land rights to the top

| March 6, 2017

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The hike up Mount Kilimanjaro is long, difficult, and a very personal experience. In October 2016, 33 African women made this trek to the rooftop of Africa to take women’s issues to the top. Dubbed the Kilimanjaro Initiative, the goal of the trek was to increase the profile of land rights for women.

Njoki Njehu is the executive director of the Daughters of Mumbai Global Resource Centre in Kenya, one of the groups that participated in the Kilimanjaro Initiative. Ms. Njehu traveled to Arusha to participate in the pan-African event, and also led consultations in Kenya that tried to understand the local context and demands of Kenyan women.

The hike up Mount Kilimanjaro was an important part of the event, Ms. Njehu says. She explains: “It was powerful to see that women can do just about anything when they put their mind to it…. It was part of showing the determination women have [in] fighting for their rights, their land rights in particular.”

The women organized the Kilimanjaro Initiative to discuss strategies for strengthening women’s voices around land ownership. The result was a charter of demands, to be presented to the African Union and national governments.

Ms. Njehu explains, “In some places, policy needs to be changed. In Kenya, there is a policy that is very clear … in other places, that is not the case…. [But] implementation is a very different matter.”

For example, in Tanzania, the Land Act and the Village Land Act both grant women equal access to, ownership of, and control of land.

Agustina Tarimo lives in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. But she has been battling for three years to own land.

The 41-year-old divorcee lives with her three children in Lang’ata village in Mwanga district. She leases a plot of land to grow vegetables and ginger. She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “It’s hard to own even a small piece in this village if you are a woman.” Local custom dictates that women can only own land through their husbands or male relatives.

Faudhia Yassin works for the Women’s Legal Aid Centre, one of five Tanzanian rights groups working to help women understand their land rights. The coalition is known as the Ardhi Alliance. She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “Eighty per cent of women live in rural areas, but less than five per cent own their land. When these women are made landless, they become an economic burden vulnerable to exploitation.”

Ms. Njehu says the situation in Kenya is much the same. The Kenyan Constitution says that women and girls can inherit and own land, but religious, customary, and cultural practices often differ. Ms. Njehu explains, “The reality on the ground is of course very different. Decisions about land are made by families and by communities. And the truth of the matter is that women get the short end of the stick.”

She says girls often inherit less than boys, if they inherit anything at all. After their husbands die, many widows are chased from their communities and told they no longer have a place—or land. Sometimes, women work land until it is productive, only to have it taken over by communities or governments, without receiving compensation, or with less compensation than men.

The Kenyan portion of the Kilimanjaro Initiative involved focus group discussions with 44,000 people, both men and women. It resulted in several demands, which were presented to the Kenyan government and brought to Arusha to contribute to the discussion.

Ms. Njehu says women need more access to public land and a greater role in decision-making organizations such as land boards. Women also need to be empowered by understanding their rights. She says many Kenyan women cannot read English or Swahili, and so cannot read the constitution. Ms. Njehu says translating laws into local languages would empower women.

The event in Arusha was the culmination of four years of work by women and men in more than 20 African countries. But Ms. Njehu says the advocacy work will continue until the situation changes for women.

This story was originally published in October 2016.