In many of theSub-Saharan African countries, peasant farmers or small landholders are thecore of the agricultural sector of which majority are women.
Women have somehowbecome the de facto managers of rural household agriculture. One main issuesmall landholders throughout Africa face is the shortage of good qualityfarming land and for women the situation is even more peculiar; faced withuncertain tenure and decreasing size and quality of plots to farm, they have anexceptionally difficult task maintaining levels of output and household foodsecurity. This section examines constraints of women farmers by looking atwomen’s land rights, the size and quality of their land holdings and theirmeans of acquiring land in Sub-Sahara Africa. Land Rights andProductivityLand as a factor ofproduction is of immerse importance and is also the most important asset forhouseholds that rely on agriculture for livelihood.
Access to land is a corerequirement for farming and control over land is mechanism linked with wealth,status and power in many areas. However, while women account for 60 percent ofall cultivators and produce an estimated 75 percent of the food in Africa(Cypher 2009:345), they have been ignored in land reform programs which limitswomen’s engagement in larger scale cash crop production. Women’s right to landhas historically been conditioned by that of their male relatives within theirhousehold or communities.
Under customary law in Sub-Sahara African countrieslike Zambia and kenya,women traditionally had defined rights to land; land wasallocated to women from their husbands and natal families based on theirposition within a kinship group and in particular relationship to a male relative(father, brother, husband).Traditionally the right to use land was provided toboth men and women by the community elders. Depending on the ethnic group theserights would come through the mother’s line in matrilineal societies, thefather’s line in patrilineal societies, or both (UN-Habitat 2002). Also undercolonial rule, three buildups worked to the disadvantage of women in theirrelation to land rights. First, private ownership of land by individualregistration was introduced.
In Kenya for example, private ownership of landwas introduced under the Swynnerton Plan. Although established to encourageAfrican farmers to consolidate holdings under individual rather than collectiveownership and to introduce more profitable crops and technology, the plan”set the precedent for post-colonial land tenure policies that legitimizeddifferential access to land…” (Davison 1988:164). By giving precedenceto individual ownership geared toward men, the Plan unintentionally underminedwomen’s traditional access to land and marginalized their traditional userights. The head of household, usually assumed to be male, was awarded titleand the right to mortgage or sell the land without the consent of other familymembers.
Registration in effect converted men’s land rights into absoluteownership. Because formal title has legal standing, many women were left with muchless secure tenure on the land than traditional rights provided (Davison 1988).Second, the introduction of other legal systems resulted in a complex and oftenambiguous legal structure that tended to undermine women’s traditional landrights. Nigeria provides a good example. The Nigerian legal system comprisescustomary law, English law, and statutory law. Although the Land Use Decree of1978 is prima facie gender-neutral, the actual rights of rural women in Nigeriaare the result of the interaction of these three legal systems.
Women aregenerally disadvantaged in entering land transactions because of the legaluncertainties affecting their tenure and lack of marketable land rights.Moreover World Bank studies suggest that women’s relatively lower educationlevels compared to men’s make it difficult for them to understand these legalcomplexities.Third, the patriarchalnature of the colonial regime worked to the disadvantage of all peasantfarmers, especially women and although Post-independence land policies havegenerally been gender-neutral in the sense of not actively discriminatingagainst women. However, in practice, women’s land rights have barely improved. Land AcquisitionSome women now getaccess to land through purchase or inheritance, especially women who headhouseholds. As land becomes increasingly scarce, borrowing and renting arebecoming important for women. However, some classical economist like Adam Smithand David Ricardo have called the practice of sharecropping and land rentalfarming as inefficient (Cypher 2009:372).
Some African countries have madeefforts to ease the acquisition of land by women, especially throughinheritance however many parts of Africa traditional inheritance rights whichdisadvantaged women still prevail. Typically land allocated to women to farm istaken over by the community of her in-laws upon the death of her husband ordivorce. Women tend to lose their marital land and they may also lose therights 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, belandless unless absorbed by either the community of her in-laws (a commonpractice in Burkina Faso) or her natal family. In Zambia for example, theobjective of the new Intestate Succession Act is to eliminate unfair practicesagainst surviving female spouses and children and to equalize rights ofsuccession for males and females.
However, the act specifically excludes landthat, at the time of death of the intestate, has been acquired and held undercustomary law; this land reverts to the owners, who according to customary laware the community and the family of the deceased. The law allows widows toretain farm implements but does not guarantee that the land the widow has beenworking on and developing will remain hers according to a 2002 UN- Habitatreport. Land Availability Good farming land is becoming increasingly scarce in Africa.Population pressure on the land together with continued degradation are takingtheir toll on available farming land. The World Bank estimates that in allzones about one-third of holdings are below the calculated poverty thresholdsize. Women have much smaller farms than do men. In Nigeria households headedby males cultivate a mean area of 2.6 hectares, or three times that offemale-headed household.
Even taking into account the larger size ofmale-headed households (7.6 people compared to 4.9 in female-headedhouseholds), male-headed households had double the land per capita offemale-headed households.
(Saito et al.,1994:51) The gender differencesare greatest in Imo State, where male-headed households cultivate five timesthe area of female-headed households; this is an area of Nigeria wherepopulation pressure on land is most intense. Women not only farm smallerholdings than men, but also tend to have fewer plots. (Saito et al., 1994:46,51) Quality of LandAmong with the decliningsize of holdings being farmed in Africa, their quality also is deterioratingdue to a number of factors. One is the well-documented phenomenon ofdesertification in large parts of Africa, including parts of Burkina Faso andNigeria.
A second factor is the change in farming practices from thetraditional land-extensive, low-input cultivation systems that maintainecological balance to a more labor-intensive system. As population pressure onthe land escalate, farming practices changes. For example, the traditionalpractice of slash and burn or shifting cultivation which enables land to beregenerated, is declining owing to a lack of male labor to perform the tasks ofland clearing, and the infeasibility of allowing the land to be left unfarmedfor a cropping season because of the loss of output and income.
Furthermore,environmentally beneficent management of the land is closely related tosecurity of tenure and although women increasingly are the farmers, they rarelyhave land title, hence, their incentives and capacity to manage the land in anecologically sound way are impaired. In addition, as pressure on existing landintensifies, more marginal lands are being brought under cultivation. Poor landmanagement practices are already evident. Farmers are shortening if noteliminating the fallow period, and the traditional methods of halting soilerosion are inadequate (Cypher 2009:348). A World Bank study estimated thatevery year, cereal, fuelwood and livestock production foregone due to soil,water, and biomass losses costs the country about 5 percent of GDP. Womenfarmers know a great deal about managing natural resources, but this knowledgeis not fully used because women have little security of land tenure and arerarely consulted in the policymaking process. Thepoor of the world — five-sixths of humanity — have things, but they lack theprocess to represent their property and create capital.
They have houses butnot titles; lands but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation-De Soto DeSoto in his book Mystery of capitalism, use the term “Dead capital” torefer to an asset that cannot be sold, valued or used for an investment. For a majorityof women in household agriculture, land seems to be their dead capital. Sincethe 1960s, some considerable efforts have been made to improve women’s rightsto land, but in practical terms, the situation has worsened, the growingpopulation pressure on increasingly depleted land has further weakened women’sland rights, and as good agricultural land has become scarce, women aremanaging even smaller plots. Women do need land title to obtain formal creditand make investments in the land that will raise both the productivity of landand labor.
Furthermore, as efforts to improve agricultural productivity boostup, it will be even more important to ensure that women have access to andcontrol over adequate land. Women’s legal rights to land, throughout Sub-SaharanAfrica, must be expanded and secured so that they can be implemented inpractice to boost up production.