YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Elizabeth Maimo, a 52-year-old farmer in Santa in Cameroon’s Northwest Region, has struggled since custom dictated she surrender her piece of family land in 2012 to her younger brother, a herder, who wanted more space to breed cows.
“I have been cultivating on a rented, smaller piece of land and this has reduced my yields and income by more than 50 percent,” Maimo said. “Our culture says a woman (who) will eventually be married into a different family has no right to own a piece of her father’s land.”
Maimo is just one of millions of female African farmers who are disadvantaged by cultural practices and laws that deny them equal access to land.
But African women’s rights activists are intensifying their efforts to push governments to speed up land reform processes and establish clear legislation securing women’s rights to own, access and control land and other natural resources.
According to Gregory Muluh, coordinator of the Grassfield Project, a government initiative assisting women farmers in Cameroon’s northwest, the country still has no law that protects land tenure for women.
“Even if people know that refusing women the right to own land is wrong, there is nowhere to complain, and women end up swallowing a bitter pill,” Muluh told Thomson Reuters Foundation during a visit to the Grassfield Project last year. “Instituting a legal provision to safeguard the rights of women to land ownership is imperative if we really want them to contribute fully to development.”
The African Women's Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF), an international NGO, believes only reforms that include legal safeguards giving women equal say in decisions made by customary and state authorities on managing land and forest resources will boost gender equality on the continent.
“We know that wherever land rights are being ignored, women are indisputably the most affected. Banding together and raising awareness of these issues is the first step toward ensuring all women’s rights are recognised,” Cécile Ndjebet, president of REFACOF, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
KEY TO DEVELOPMENT
Ongoing land reforms in African nations such as Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Senegal have yet to incorporate any special protection for women, according to REFACOF.
“Globally, people are starting to understand the contributions women make to development. The importance of securing land rights for women in achieving development can therefore not be over-emphasised,” said Ndjebet, who is from Cameroon.
She called for the post-2015 development goals, which are now under discussion, to include a land rights indicator for women. “(This) would be indicative of how women’s advocacy for land rights has received critical attention,” she added.
Her group and others are pushing hard for improvements to customary land rights for African women, particularly across West and Central Africa, according to Ndjebet.
In Cameroon, for example, the Bagyeli community of Nyamabande in the East Region, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers, has won customary rights over a large swathe of disputed land between the Campo-Ma’an National Park and the HEVECAM rubber plantation, thanks to advocacy by REFACOF, Ndjebet said.
At a conference in Yaounde, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, Cameroon’s minister of women’s affairs called for a collective effort by women across the continent to fight for progressive policies.
“Cameroon’s rural women, like those of other countries in Africa, are grappling with numerous challenges, including poverty, preventable diseases and the impacts of climate shifts on farming and other aspects of their daily lives. We need policy reforms that protect the rights of this vulnerable group in society - especially the right to own land and other resources,” said Catherine Abena Ondoa.
Her ministry is pushing for the passage of a new family code into law, which will enshrine the right for women to own land and other natural resources, among other things, she added.
More than 50 participants from 16 African countries meeting in Monrovia in Liberia earlier this month to discuss gender, climate and tenure issues also called for a boost in status for disenfranchised women across the continent, enabling them to own land.
Meanwhile, an online petition launched a month ago by REFACOF calls on Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to stand by her promise - made at an event hosted by Thomson Reuters last year in the United States - that: “Women will have the full rights to own their land, like anyone else.”
REFACOF argues that such a move by Liberia would speed up reforms on women’s rights and bring positive shifts in land ownership across Africa.
“Time is running out. The reform process (in Liberia) is already underway. While the land reform ‘aims to give equal protection to the land rights of men and women’, there is still no clear legislation securing women’s rights to own, access, or control land and resources. But we can change that!” said the petition, issued on Feb. 27, which urges Johnson Sirleaf to ensure those rights are protected and safeguarded by law.
If Liberian women are granted the full right to own their land, it could propel a transition to equality across Central and West Africa, where other countries are just beginning their land reform processes, said the petition, which has almost 500 signatures.
Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy notes that women are major players in the agricultural sector, making up the majority of small-holder producers and the agricultural labour force.
Women produce some 60 percent of agricultural goods and carry out 80 percent of trading activities in rural areas, but they have less access to productive inputs than men, including land, skills training, basic tools and technology, the strategy says. The situation is similar in many developing countries.
LESS THAN 10% OF LANDHOLDERS
A September 2013 report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the World Bank said a woman’s ability to own, inherit and control land and property is vital to her ability to access resources and participate in the economy.
“Yet many women do not have legal ownership rights to the land on which they live and work. This can increase women’s dependence on husbands and male, land-owning relatives and limit their access to credit and productive inputs,” the report said.
In Western and Central Africa, generally less than 10 percent of landholders are women, according to data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“For real political and social change to take place, there are three pillars that need to be addressed,” REFACOF’s Ndjebet said. “We need legislation that protects equal rights for women, mechanisms that provide for political and social equity, and a change in social and cultural perceptions of women.”
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.