Mrs Lovelyn Ejim Nnenna, Chairperson of pan African rural Women's Council, hands over the consolidated Kilimanjaro Rural Women Charter of demands to Ms. Thokozile Ruzvidzo, Director Of Gender, Poverty and Social Policy Division at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (In the middle) and Ouriatou Danfakha, senior policy officer at in the Bureau of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, on 16 October 2016.

Protect rural women’s land rights and they will pull Africa’s economy out of the COVID-19 pandemic

Ask any small holder farmer in Africa about their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and you are more likely to sample a story of personal economic decline than a near-death health experience with COVID-19. Movement restrictions imposed by governments to slow down the coronavirus infection left many farms abandoned or poorly attended and shut down markets for produce. There have been reports from across the continent of poor farmers suffering heavy losses of up to a whole season’s investment.

This year and the next few will be dedicated to getting back on track as economies open. While a universally accessible COVID-19 vaccine is the best place to begin the journey towards full recovery, Africa must also prioritize a robust agricultural sector and a stable food system that will guarantee food security and stimulate trade for a quick economic recovery.

This is a time in the continent’s history that calls for greater commitment by governments to eliminate all impediments to agricultural productivity such as practices that inhibit women’s exercise of their land rights. Since land is a key factor of production, there is a strong economic case for promoting equal land rights for men and women. However, most of Africa remains trapped in patriarchal cultures and traditions that places land and most of other property in the hands of men. The World Bank estimates that just under 13 percent of African women claim sole ownership of land, compared to 36 percent of African men even though women contribute over 50 percent of the labor used to produce food for both household consumption and sale in some countries. Given these grim statistics, banking on agriculture to play a key role in Africa’s recovery from the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic is what former US President Barack Obama would call playing half the team in a high-stake match and expecting victory.

However, while the demonstrated positive impact of ownership, access and use of land by women on a country’s economy should be an effective entry point in lobbying governments to promote women land rights, the main reason why governments must act is the fact that women’s land rights are human rights. It is for this reason that Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU) discusses land governance broadly including under Goal 13 on Peace and Security and Goal 17 on full gender equality in all spheres of life.

According to Agenda 2063, 30 percent of the documented land rights for women in Africa should be achieved by 2025 to progress toward attaining gender equality. African Heads of State and Government have in the past resolved to strengthen the security of land tenure for women, but unfair land-use practices continue to undermine gains made towards the realization of gender equality. Therefore, women in Africa continue to face major challenges on land ownership by women despite the strides the continent has made in reforming legal, policy, and institutional frameworks.

Women groups and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have continued to engage with communities and governments to eliminate barriers to effective implementation of laws and policies. In probably the largest gathering of African women on land rights, over 500 rural women from across the continent and CSOs came together in Arusha on 15 and 16 October 2016 and climbed Africa’s highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro to symbolically raise their voices on the worrying situation of women land rights in Africa. The women also put down 15 demands through the Kilimanjaro Women’s Charter of Demands , based on the African Union legal frameworks on women’s land rights, and handed it to the AU with the request that the Charter be domesticated into the laws and policies of Member States.

In 2020 the agitation around women land rights and general participation of women in land legislation processes in the continent was disrupted by the COVID-19 movement restrictions that saw the shrinking of the civic space. That has not stopped rural women’s movements from continuing to push for their demands to be honored by governments. And there is evidence that all it takes is goodwill by individual governments, as has been shown by the considerable progress reported in Rwanda that are promoting joint titling and promoting the involvement of women in decision making.

The AU has been the main partner institution that women and CSOs have relied on in lobbying African governments to do what they must do to guarantee women their land rights. Today, as Africa looks for a way out of the pandemic which has had a disproportionate socioeconomic impact on women there being every indication that agriculture will play a key role in the continent’s economic recovery, African rural women are hoping that the AU will demonstrate greater commitment to having Member States protect their land rights as outlined in various international and national laws so that they can unleash their full potential in rescuing the continent from the stranglehold of the pandemic.


Authored by:

Leah Mugehera – Leah Mugehera, Gender Justice and Women Rights Lead, Oxfam Pan African Program

Esther Mwaura-Muiru, Global Women’s Land Rights Manager, International Land Coalition

Grace Ananda – Gender and Land Rights expert


This article was first published on Nation Africa on 27 February 2021