In tenure and decreasing size and quality of

In many of the
Sub-Saharan African countries, peasant farmers or small landholders are the
core of the agricultural sector of which majority are women. Women have somehow
become the de facto managers of rural household agriculture. One main issue
small landholders throughout Africa face is the shortage of good quality
farming land and for women the situation is even more peculiar; faced with
uncertain tenure and decreasing size and quality of plots to farm, they have an
exceptionally difficult task maintaining levels of output and household food
security. This section examines constraints of women farmers by looking at
women’s land rights, the size and quality of their land holdings and their
means of acquiring land in Sub-Sahara Africa.


Land Rights and

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Land as a factor of
production is of immerse importance and is also the most important asset for
households that rely on agriculture for livelihood. Access to land is a core
requirement for farming and control over land is mechanism linked with wealth,
status and power in many areas. However, while women account for 60 percent of
all cultivators and produce an estimated 75 percent of the food in Africa
(Cypher 2009:345), they have been ignored in land reform programs which limits
women’s engagement in larger scale cash crop production.


Women’s right to land
has historically been conditioned by that of their male relatives within their
household or communities. Under customary law in Sub-Sahara African countries
like Zambia and kenya,women traditionally had defined rights to land; land was
allocated to women from their husbands and natal families based on their
position within a kinship group and in particular relationship to a male relative
(father, brother, husband).Traditionally the right to use land was provided to
both men and women by the community elders. Depending on the ethnic group these
rights would come through the mother’s line in matrilineal societies, the
father’s line in patrilineal societies, or both (UN-Habitat 2002). Also under
colonial rule, three buildups worked to the disadvantage of women in their
relation to land rights. First, private ownership of land by individual
registration was introduced. In Kenya for example, private ownership of land
was introduced under the Swynnerton Plan. Although established to encourage
African farmers to consolidate holdings under individual rather than collective
ownership and to introduce more profitable crops and technology, the plan
“set the precedent for post-colonial land tenure policies that legitimized
differential access to land…” (Davison 1988:164). By giving precedence
to individual ownership geared toward men, the Plan unintentionally undermined
women’s traditional access to land and marginalized their traditional use
rights. The head of household, usually assumed to be male, was awarded title
and the right to mortgage or sell the land without the consent of other family
members. Registration in effect converted men’s land rights into absolute
ownership. Because formal title has legal standing, many women were left with much
less secure tenure on the land than traditional rights provided (Davison 1988).
Second, the introduction of other legal systems resulted in a complex and often
ambiguous legal structure that tended to undermine women’s traditional land
rights. Nigeria provides a good example. The Nigerian legal system comprises
customary law, English law, and statutory law. Although the Land Use Decree of
1978 is prima facie gender-neutral, the actual rights of rural women in Nigeria
are the result of the interaction of these three legal systems. Women are
generally disadvantaged in entering land transactions because of the legal
uncertainties affecting their tenure and lack of marketable land rights.
Moreover World Bank studies suggest that women’s relatively lower education
levels compared to men’s make it difficult for them to understand these legal

Third, the patriarchal
nature of the colonial regime worked to the disadvantage of all peasant
farmers, especially women and although Post-independence land policies have
generally been gender-neutral in the sense of not actively discriminating
against women. However, in practice, women’s land rights have barely improved.


Land Acquisition

Some women now get
access to land through purchase or inheritance, especially women who head
households. As land becomes increasingly scarce, borrowing and renting are
becoming important for women. However, some classical economist like Adam Smith
and David Ricardo have called the practice of sharecropping and land rental
farming as inefficient (Cypher 2009:372). Some African countries have made
efforts to ease the acquisition of land by women, especially through
inheritance however many parts of Africa traditional inheritance rights which
disadvantaged women still prevail. Typically land allocated to women to farm is
taken over by the community of her in-laws upon the death of her husband or
divorce. Women tend to lose their marital land and they may also lose the
rights to use land in their parental home because of the nature of most marriages
(women moving to the residence of their husbands). A woman would, thus, be
landless unless absorbed by either the community of her in-laws (a common
practice in Burkina Faso) or her natal family. In Zambia for example, the
objective of the new Intestate Succession Act is to eliminate unfair practices
against surviving female spouses and children and to equalize rights of
succession for males and females. However, the act specifically excludes land
that, at the time of death of the intestate, has been acquired and held under
customary law; this land reverts to the owners, who according to customary law
are the community and the family of the deceased. The law allows widows to
retain farm implements but does not guarantee that the land the widow has been
working on and developing will remain hers according to a 2002 UN- Habitat


Land Availability  

 Good farming land is becoming increasingly scarce in Africa.
Population pressure on the land together with continued degradation are taking
their toll on available farming land. The World Bank estimates that in all
zones about one-third of holdings are below the calculated poverty threshold
size. Women have much smaller farms than do men. In Nigeria households headed
by males cultivate a mean area of 2.6 hectares, or three times that of
female-headed household. Even taking into account the larger size of
male-headed households (7.6 people compared to 4.9 in female-headed
households), male-headed households had double the land per capita of
female-headed households. (Saito et al.,1994:51) The gender differences
are greatest in Imo State, where male-headed households cultivate five times
the area of female-headed households; this is an area of Nigeria where
population pressure on land is most intense. Women not only farm smaller
holdings than men, but also tend to have fewer plots. (Saito et al., 1994:46,51)


Quality of Land

Among with the declining
size of holdings being farmed in Africa, their quality also is deteriorating
due to a number of factors. One is the well-documented phenomenon of
desertification in large parts of Africa, including parts of Burkina Faso and
Nigeria. A second factor is the change in farming practices from the
traditional land-extensive, low-input cultivation systems that maintain
ecological balance to a more labor-intensive system. As population pressure on
the land escalate, farming practices changes. For example, the traditional
practice of slash and burn or shifting cultivation which enables land to be
regenerated, is declining owing to a lack of male labor to perform the tasks of
land clearing, and the infeasibility of allowing the land to be left unfarmed
for a cropping season because of the loss of output and income. Furthermore,
environmentally beneficent management of the land is closely related to
security of tenure and although women increasingly are the farmers, they rarely
have land title, hence, their incentives and capacity to manage the land in an
ecologically sound way are impaired. In addition, as pressure on existing land
intensifies, more marginal lands are being brought under cultivation. Poor land
management practices are already evident. Farmers are shortening if not
eliminating the fallow period, and the traditional methods of halting soil
erosion are inadequate (Cypher 2009:348). A World Bank study estimated that
every year, cereal, fuelwood and livestock production foregone due to soil,
water, and biomass losses costs the country about 5 percent of GDP. Women
farmers know a great deal about managing natural resources, but this knowledge
is not fully used because women have little security of land tenure and are
rarely consulted in the policymaking process.



poor of the world — five-sixths of humanity — have things, but they lack the
process to represent their property and create capital. They have houses but
not titles; lands but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation
-De Soto


Soto in his book Mystery of capitalism, use the term “Dead capital” to
refer to an asset that cannot be sold, valued or used for an investment. For a majority
of women in household agriculture, land seems to be their dead capital. Since
the 1960s, some considerable efforts have been made to improve women’s rights
to land, but in practical terms, the situation has worsened, the growing
population pressure on increasingly depleted land has further weakened women’s
land rights, and as good agricultural land has become scarce, women are
managing even smaller plots. Women do need land title to obtain formal credit
and make investments in the land that will raise both the productivity of land
and labor. Furthermore, as efforts to improve agricultural productivity boost
up, it will be even more important to ensure that women have access to and
control over adequate land. Women’s legal rights to land, throughout Sub-Saharan
Africa, must be expanded and secured so that they can be implemented in
practice to boost up production.