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Winning the fight for women’s land rights

by Mohammad Ghazal

Women, have cultivated and nurtured life on our planet for centuries. Yet, while the world enjoys the fruits of their labour, they often have no say or control over the land they work.

To add insult to injury, the twin threats of drought and desertification, intensified by climate change, have reduced the amount of usable land, jeopardising livelihoods as well as food production. Moreover, unsustainable farming is eroding soil 100 times faster than natural processes can restore it. The United Nations has classified up to 40 per cent of the world’s land as degraded.

Land degradation is a huge challenge, but the solution lies in the people most concerned about protecting this valuable resource: women. When given the chance, women are responsible stewards who use their extensive knowledge and skills to protect and restore the land in their possession. They have also proven capable of building resilience to droughts, which are becoming more severe and more common as temperatures rise.

As matters stand, women are rarely offered such opportunities. Discriminatory practices such as inadequate land-tenure systems, limited access to credit, unequal pay, low levels of decision-making autonomy, and sexual- and gender-based violence prevent their active participation in land management.

In Chad, the government excludes many women and girls from land allocations, leaving them with insecure tenure. Gender norms that devalue the contributions of women further reinforce their precarious position. The common expression “Mara sakit”, meaning “She’s just a woman”, exemplifies this sexist dynamic.

The problem extends far beyond one country. Despite comprising nearly half of the world’s agricultural workforce and producing up to 80 per cent of food in developing economies, women own less than one-fifth of land worldwide. More than 100 governments continue to deny women the right to inherit their husband’s property.

This imbalance, coupled with the worsening climate crisis, leads to female agricultural workers bearing the brunt of land degradation. They suffer from food and water scarcity and are often forced to migrate, which is a contributing factor to gender inequality and its expression through violence and discrimination against women and girls. Indigenous women and girls, people with disabilities, and women human-rights defenders are particularly vulnerable in such conditions.

Frustrated by their lack of agency in decision-making, women in some countries have started to fight for their land rights. Sierra Leone, for example, recently passed a new law that grants women the right to own, lease, or buy land in the country.

In Tanzania, women who have been given stronger land rights are earning up to 3.8 times more income and are also more likely to have individual savings. This highlights an important byproduct of equal land rights: economic security for women and girls. Giving women a greater say in land management can have cascading knock-on effects on household income, food security, and investment in children’s education and health.

Equal land rights could also boost food security, as women invest more in agricultural technology, and use their indigenous traditional knowledge, that results in higher yields. In fact, if women farmers had access to the same level of resources as men, the number of undernourished people in the world could be reduced by as much as 100-150 million people.

To make this a reality, governments must remove the barriers that prevent women and girls from owning and inheriting land. More broadly, policymakers should involve women in decisions about land management, conservation, and restoration.

The private sector also has a critical role to play. By expanding access to credit, for example, financial institutions can make it easier for female agricultural workers to purchase the technology and inputs required to improve yields, protect soils, and guard against land degradation.

Yet the most important work, including raising awareness and campaigning for change, falls to local communities. Campaigns like With Rural Women for a Chad Without Hunger have pushed for land reforms and encouraged dialogue with authorities, putting affected women front and centre. The outcome in Chad is promising: after mobilising more than 25,000 women in seven provinces between 2017 and 2019, 300 hectares of land were allocated to 18 women’s groups.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has placed gender equality at the core of its mandate – and for good reason. As the convention acknowledges in its Gender Action Plan, women play a crucial role in sustainable land management. Consequently, securing women’s land rights is not only the right thing to do; it will boost land-restoration efforts, develop long-term resilience to droughts, and create more equitable economies. Our planet, and the health of our societies, depends on it.

Tarja Halonen, the first female president of Finland, is United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Land ambassador. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, is a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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