Women’s land rights in Africa: Does implementation match policy?

In recent years, women’s land rights have strongly featured in core agendas of the Africa Union, United Nations Organisations, governments and non-state actors. African Union and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have for example, developed a set of guidelines explicitly in favour of women’s land rights. The African Union (AU) Framework and Guidelines categorically states that the ongoing land reforms in Africa, most of which are pro-market solutions, should not jeopardise the rights and access of vulnerable groups such as women, indigenous communities and youth, and that these groups are not adversely affected by expensive right transfer systems. Several countries have also reformed their legislation integrating women’s land rights in policy and legal provisions. Moreover, civil society and grassroot women movements, such as the Kilimanjaro Initiative have also increased voices of rural women to demand their land rights.

To understand how policy commitments are translated into national legislation as well as practices on the ground the consortia comprising of Oxfam, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies and Plateforme Régionale des Organisations Paysannes d’Afrique Centrale developed a women land rights scorecard as a quantifiable tool to measure the performance of selected countries in implementing the provisions of women’s land rights instruments such as FAO guidelines and AU Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa among others. The scorecard measures the performance of participating African states in implementing the provisions of the selected instruments on women’s land rights across five themes, namely: (1) Provisions are made in the law to guarantee women’s equal land rights; (2) Women’s legislated land rights are protected and enforced; (3) Women make a meaningful contribution to land governance; (4) Women are able to assert their control over the land they use and (5) Women’s land rights are protected in the context of large-scale land based investments. These five themes were explored during baseline study carried out in seven countries: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Togo. These countries were selected based on the presence of existing efforts to secure women’s land rights by members of the consortium. Further, the selected countries present different AU regions with differentiated women land rights’ contexts. The selected countries thus provide an indication of the potential and replicability of civil society advocacy efforts in other countries across the continent. The field research aimed to produce evidence to support civil society organisations to contribute to a better understanding and enforcement of women land rights across the African continent. The distinguishing element of this exercise is that the scorecard analysis is grounded into both solid research and grassroots women’s (leaders) views, whose dialectic power converged into a systematic monitoring tool.

In each country a country researcher in collaboration with the country’s collaborating nongovernmental organisation selected three heterogeneous locations which capture the range of situations under which rural women use land. Six semi-structured interviews per country, with purposely selected key informants were undertaken, as well as nine focus group discussions comprising of 10 women per country. Overall, 46 key informants and 630 women were engaged in the baseline study’s data collection processes.

The study found that while statutory laws to protect women land rights are in place in all studied countries, with some differences and, in some cases with existing loopholes, adherence to these laws at the community level remain inadequate. This is particularly evident in terms of equality of rights to inherit land among men and women. In all six countries except Malawi the study showed that women’s ability to access land through inheritance is compromised in practice. Women experience constant threat from clansmen and relatives of their husbands. As also documented elsewhere, in many African communities (although not all), most land-holding systems are lineage based, with men playing an important decision-making role. Malawi represents a specific case in this regard, as most land-holdings are based on matrilineal systems, but this still is not an automatic guarantee of women having more decision-making power on land.

Countries such as Kenya and Malawi have implemented principles to improve gender parity in local land governance structures, but the principles are seldom practiced at the community level and women’s influence in decision-making positions is still weak. As a result, men still make pertinent decisions regarding the land inheritance and/or allocation.

As also reported elsewhere, the study found communities’ land rights had weaker protection in the context of large-scale land-based investments and in this contexts, women are the most affected group. This is particularly true in the contexts of Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Togo, where the government has not yet provided national policy guidance on large-scale land-based investments. This lack of policy in some cases leave women more exposed to land dispossession, and poor access to land and related natural resources such as water and forest products.

Based on these findings, the paper confirms that while impressive steps to address women’s land rights issues have been taken in recent African policies, implementation is yet to receive sufficient political backing, due to widespread patriarchal values and limited financial and human resources. Women’s land and property rights could greatly be improved if all AU member countries implemented the existing commitments. Holistic implementation is therefore needed to address existing loopholes in land laws and regulation, and also align other sectoral policies, laws and regulations in order to bridge the gender gap in property rights caused by discriminatory land tenure systems, commercial pressure on land and its associated problems such as corruption and conflicts.


Emmanuel Sulle*[1], Sue Mbaya[2], Josephine Atangana[3], Barbara Codispoti, Bernard Moseti, and Leah Mugehera[4]


[1] *Corresponding author, Research Associate, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape and Programme Officer for Women’s Land Rights Project in Africa

[2] Sue Mbaya – Director for SM Associates and consultant for the Women’s Land Rights Project in Africa

[3] PROPAC Programme officer, Women’s Land Rights Project in Africa

[4] The rest of the authors work for Oxfam International, and run Women’s Land Rights Project in Africa



For more information contact Bernard.Moseti@oxfam.org