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Jul 30

Secure Land Rights for Rwanda’s Women are Critical for Families and the Nation

A recent report from Rwanda’s Department of Land and Mapping found that women, either individually or jointly, own most of the registered plots of land in the capital, Kigali.

The Deputy Registrar of Land, Grace Nishimwe, was quoted by local media as saying, “This shows the changes that have been implemented by [the] national gender mainstreaming program. Previously, land titles were registered in the husband’s names alone, and it was forbidden for a woman to own a plot of land. We women applaud such great initiatives that make us feel worthy.”

Certainly, Rwanda has made great strides. Beginning in 2007, the government of Rwanda embarked on the Land Tenure Regularization Program (LTRP) – a national land registration program – which set out to title every plot of land in the country in order to 1) decrease gender inequality in access to land; 2) optimize land use and economic growth through property ownership and security; and 3) provide a clear institutional legal framework for land ownership.  By 2013, approximately 99% of individually-held land in the country had been registered.

Still, more can be done.

Rural women remain particularly vulnerable. Customary law often undermines their right to inherit land. Women are often pressured to relinquish their right to land to their brothers.  When women do assert their rights to land, they face the traditional restrictions on women’s access to dispute resolution institutions.

This is particularly troubling given Rwanda’s high population, land scarcity and consequent high rate of conflict over land. Further, the country’s legal framework could better protect the rights of women to land, particularly women in polygamous and unofficial unions, who are not protected under the current legal framework.

More secure rights for Rwanda’s women are critical not just for women’s economic empowerment, but also to help Rwanda achieve a host of development goals. Rwanda Vision 2020, the country’s plan for economic development, is based on two pillars, one of which is the transformation of agriculture into a productive, high value, market-oriented sector.

This cannot be achieved without better supporting and protecting women’s land rights.

Research shows that when women have resources like land, they are more likely than men to use those resources to benefit their children and help their family climb out of poverty.

According to a USAID study in Nicaragua and Honduras, women with land rights contribute a greater proportion of income to the household than men.  Children in households with women landowners had higher levels of educational attainment.

Likewise, a study in Nepal found that malnutrition is reduced by half when the mother owns land. A similar study in Ghana found that households in which women own land spend more of their income on food than households in which women are not landowners.

The reasons land ownership can transform women and their families are simple. Land is power. And having control over land gives a woman greater stature, gives her more of a say in making important family and community decisions,  makes her  less likely to tolerate abuse, and makes her more likely to take good care of the land she farms.

The benefits extend to improved food security as well. Research indicates that if women had the same access to land as men, women could significantly increase yields on their farms.

Landesa is currently partnering with the Government of Rwanda, Search for Common Ground, Haguruka, Tetra Tech, and the National Women’s Council on a project supported by USAID to create a network of Community Resource Persons to address land disputes in a gender sensitive way in their communities and improve the legal, policy, and institutional framework for land dispute management.

Closing the gap between the country’s good laws and the day to day reality for women in the countryside, which is currently governed by a web of customs and traditions that leave women vulnerable, would go a long way towards unleashing rural women’s potential for the benefit of all Rwandans.

About The Author

Jennifer Duncan Africa Program DirectorJennifer Duncan has worked in international development for more than 15 years, with an emphasis on land and housing rights. Her experience includes project management; drafting and analysis of law, policy and regulations; development of strategies for rule of law and advocacy around land and housing rights; situational assessment and design and sequencing of responsive interventions; and research, writing and publishing on land and housing-related issues. She has focused on gender issues and women’s rights to land and housing throughout her career. Ms. Duncan has worked intensively over the past eighteen months on a number of projects in support of Kenyan land sector reforms.Duncan has previously conducted policy work and field research on land issues in China, Georgia, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Thailand. She has also lived and worked in Costa Rica. In addition to her international experience, she has worked with socio-economic development and legal issues among minority groups within the US, including migrant farm worker communities in California and the Makah Nation in Washington State. Duncan earned her J.D. from the University of Washington and her B.A. with honors in International Politics and Economics from Middlebury College.

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