This blog was originally published by the Hilton Prize Coalition.
By Izehi Oriaghan
In my academic and professional experience, I have been confronted with women’s issues, including child or early marriage, the limited participation of women in business and political leadership, and gender-based violence. But until this summer, I had never really contemplated the status of the Nigerian woman in regards to her right to own or inherit land.
Working with Landesa this summer as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow has been a great learning opportunity for me. I have been able to explore an aspect of international development and women’s empowerment that, before now, I had not given much thought. And I am grateful for this experience. In my role, I conducted background research to support Landesa’s emerging global women’s land rights (WLR) campaign, which seeks to bridge the implementation gap between law and practice in fostering WLR globally. This work has led me to take a closer look at the WLR landscape in Nigeria.
Land acquisition for men and women in Nigeria, for the most part, is through inheritance. And inheritance rights to a great extent are influenced by the prevailing customs and norms in different parts of the country. Most often, men have a greater chance of inheriting land over women, a patrilineal system of land inheritance that persists despite the provisions of the law. Hence, there is a huge gender gap in land ownership in Nigeria, and less than 2% of women, compared to 17% of men, own land by themselves.
The 1978 Land Use Act of Nigeria established a state-owned land system that allowed similar opportunities for men and women to acquire or inherit land. However, only legally married women could benefit from this act, so it did not necessarily improve the ownership or inheritance rights for women in Nigeria. Transfer of land ownership is still largely guided by customary practices that discriminate against women, especially because the average citizen has poor knowledge of the statutory laws with respect to land.
Based on my own personal inquiries on the subject and published research, I have found that few land owners in Nigeria have the formal documents to prove land ownership. This is why statutory laws, in comparison to customary practices, are not always as effective in ensuring secure and equitable land tenure for women and men, because the legal ownership of many such lands cannot be proven. The customary system in Nigeria is quite flexible, and approves the right to transfer land without seeking government approval. Consequently, up to 40% of land in Nigeria may be prone to legal disputes over rightful ownership, which means a large portion of land in Nigeria is under insecure tenure.
In comparing women’s inheritance rights outcomes in customary and statutory settings, I decided to sample the opinions of women from different parts of the country. I wanted to know the typical Nigerian woman’s experience in spite of the law.
Shae Pedro is from the western part of Nigeria. According to her, it is not culturally common for girls or women to inherit land from their parents, except in rare cases when there is no male offspring. Even these rare cases largely depend on the level of exposure or belief of the family elders. It is possible that a woman can inherit her husband’s land if she is legally married to him, but she runs a risk of losing such rights if she bears no children. Shae’s family is particularly enlightened on the subject of inheritance rights, and she is able to inherit her father’s land as the first daughter of the family. This is not always the case.
Unlike Shae, Stella Isimen is unable to inherit her father’s property despite being the first child of the family, which is the plight of many girls and women in the southern part of Nigeria. As a legally married woman already past retirement age, she has no land or title to her name. Stella’s children will inherit her husband’s property, but she will be excluded from any inheritance.
Uche Precious is from the eastern part of Nigeria and shares a similar experience with Stella. A girl child cannot inherit her father’s land if she has male siblings. If widowed and without a male child, her husband’s land or property goes to his male siblings. If she bears male children, the inheritance rights fall to them. In essence, a girl or woman from the east does not have any particular inheritance rights.
The scenario is equally worse to the north of the country where women, for customary and religious reasons, often relinquish their inheritance rights due to social pressures.
I must mention that one thing is common for all these experiences, and it is the fact that these women all alluded to some improvement in customary practices due to increasing literacy and awareness of gender equality.
Thus, I might conclude that an intervention focused on awareness, education, and capacity development for local citizens, combined with the provision of formal land titles, a review of inheritance and land laws, and improved implementation systems, will go a long way to improve the land rights of women in Nigeria.
The author, Izehi Oriaghan, is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow working with Landesa.
Photo credit: Hilton Prize Coalition
About The Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the Fellows Program, the Collaborative Models Program and the Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat, Global Impact.