Where are women’s voices in the land rush debate?
On my first day at Womankind I sat in on a presentation by two of my new colleagues recently returned from a trip to Uganda and Kenya, where we are starting new projects this year.
They mentioned that in addition to the violence and discrimination women already face in these countries (and that Womankind works to combat) they could clearly see the negative impact on women of the current development hot potato: land grabbing.
What’s the problem?
The major controversy around large scale land deals stems from the lack of consideration for local farmers these deals often entail. When foreign investors buy land for commercial or industrial agricultural production directly from national or regional authorities the customary land rights of small scale famers are often ignored and their inhabitants evicted, as this video report from Ethiopia shows.
It’s a BIG problem: at an international conference a few weeks ago researchers revealed that over 80m hectares of land have been sold to private investors in the last few years (source) That’s bigger than the entire country of Pakistan, by the way.
This is bad news for the whole community. But as Womankind’s 20 years of experience have shown is usually the case, the burden rests most heavily on the shoulders of women. In both Kenya and Uganda for example, women’s access to land for farming is restricted, many women are dispossessed and large numbers are evicted from the land they work on. Additionally, women are often excluded from decision-making in their communities, so although they work on the land alongside men they are less likely to be able to determine what happens to it and who owns it. This is despite the fact that women make up the majority of small holder farmers. In most developing countries women produce between 60-80% of the food.
When women aren’t able own a home or land to farm their physical and economic security is drastically reduced. They are less able to escape unhealthy or violent relationships, access economic opportunities and influence decisions in their communities. They are more vulnerable to contracting HIV and less able to provide for their children and care for their relatives.
How women are dispossessed
As my colleague (patiently) explained to me, in these countries as in many others there is a multi-level structure in place keeping women away from the land that they need to feed themselves and their families.
In many areas, land rights are determined by customary laws and traditions, which may mean that women are barred from owning land – if their husband dies, their farm can be taken from them by a male relative or even a neighbour.
Even when formal legislation is in place it tends to be concerned with establishing land rights for male farmers, and doesn’t take into account the specific problems faced by women. Having fewer opportunities to receive an education, women often lack the legal knowledge to insist that their rights are maintained. In addition, local elites or farming associations tend to be run by men and are unaware or unwilling to champion the rights of women land owners.
National actors – agriculture ministries or state development associations – in many countries have repeatedly proved themselves indifferent to the customary rights of local farmers when making deals with foreign investors. But women farmers are excluded further as they are less likely than male farmers to have any formal claims to bargain or negotiate with.
Finally, at the international level investors not only fail to adequately consult or negotiate with local communities, but don’t consider the different impact their land deals will have on different groups within the population. For women, the impact can be devastating.
From the local to the global level it is vital that the impact on women is considered in land deals and discussions about agriculture in the developing world. Womankind is supporting women’s organisations in Kenya and Uganda to increase participation in local and national decision-making and make sure that women’s voices are heard and their rights are respected.
- Papers from the panel discussion on gender at the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing 6-8 April 2011
- Especially this paper on the gender implications of large scale land deals by the International Food Policy Research Institute
- Report by Huairou on the link between land rights and women’s health (PDF)
- Plus there are some interesting perspectives in the Gender Across Borders Feminism and Agriculture blog post series