BlogWomen's Land Rights

May 08 2013

Celebrating International Women’s Day: Inspiration from Kenya

My name is Jen Duncan and I’m a senior attorney at Landesa.

People often ask me, “I think I understand land rights but what exactly do you guys do at Landesa?”The words that I’m about to share will  hopefully  provide a good framework for understanding both the issue of women’s land rights and the work of Landesa.

Securing land rights requires both top down and bottom up work.

In the case of Kenya, a new Constitution provides women with unprecedented protections for their rights to own and inherit land. But the Constitution is only the beginning.

In Kenya, as in so many other countries around the world, at least two important elements were missing and without these, the historic rights enshrined in the Constitution would mean little to nothing.

First, we need a bridge. A bridge  to span the gap in access to information and to justice by ordinary women in Kenya.

This is harder than it sounds. How is it possible to reach ordinary Kenyan women, who live in the country side, rely on the land, and may not read or even have a copy of the new constitution, never mind a television or radio.  For these women, the formal courts are almost completely inaccessible.  These are women who, if someone steals their goat, the fruit off their tree, or even their land,  they don’t go to the far away courts, they go to tribal elders. And these tribal elders are the key.   That is what gave birth to the Justice Project in Kenya, and why we focused on  tribal elders and chiefs as agents of change.

The project is making great progress. Visiting the Justice sight in the village of Ol Pusimoru in the fall, I heard first-hand from a woman named Sarah. She had separated from her husband, who drank and frequently beat her, and was given none of their family land. And so she was living in a tiny shack with her three young children, feeding them with slim profits from a moonshine business,  and the sale of maize and potatoes from a small amount of land she leased in. She was quietly proud of the fact that she still managed somehow to send her kids to school.

She told us that because of the Justice Project, the Council of Elders was now speaking with her husband about her rights to at least nine acres of their family land. She was very optimistic that, as a result, her husband would in fact give her the land. The difference this will make for her children growing up is almost unimaginable.

This is what we mean by a bottom up—or ground up—approach.

Now, the second piece, the top down part:  the mass of new legislation needed to support the constitution.

This is where Landesa stepped up its work at the national level. I was part of a team of lawyers at Landesa, supported by USAID,  who worked very closely with the Kenyan government to advise them as they drafted the supporting legislation on land.

This is not glamorous work, it is tedious. We spent days and weeks on end pouring over draft bills and briefing government partners. The government would hand these drafts to us at the end of their day in Nairobi and want comments back by the next morning. One of the bills was over 200 pages long.  We would send the documents back to Seattle; we had a team here standing by who would read every word  on every page to spot instances where the bills fell short of upholding the constitutional promises on women’s land rights and other issues.

The next day, after a few hours of sleep, we would wake-up, go back to meet our government partners with our recommendations in hand and do it all over again.

There were of course some funny things. After one of these long sessions with the bills  I went to grab something out of my hotel room in Nairobi—urban Nairobi. I opened my door, my head still filled with the bills, to find 2 monkeys—LARGE monkeys—climbing on my bed. So there were some funny things like that to break up the intensity.

It also helped that in Kenya we were not alone.  We’ve had the honor to work alongside people—in the government, civil society, academia,  the judiciary—with an incredible commitment to reforms.  The Commission for Implementation of the Constitution represents this. The Commission  is charged with overseeing the adoption and amendment of over 700 laws in 5 years. They are  leading what can only be considered a legislative revolution, the likes of which has almost never been attempted on the African continent. Land laws are at the very center of this. (Pause here)The Commission invited us to be advisors on the land bills. I’ll never forget the final “roundtable” meeting on the bills.   The meeting took place in a packed room, attended by all of the key governmental stakeholders on the bills. The Commission’s Chair commenced the meeting  just after 7:00 a.m. and, with just two short breaks throughout the day,  adjourned a few minutes before midnight.

Landesa recognized that what we were seeing in Kenya was really extraordinary.  What we have is a country with a strong group of reformers who desperately want to do the right thing. They know how closely connected land is to the violence and poverty that have haunted their country for centuries.  And they recognize that when women have secure rights to land they can help their families climb out of poverty.

And so we continue to partner with Kenya as they rewrite their laws and so literally change the trajectory of their country’s future. In a similar vein we are currently working with the governments of Tanzania, Liberia, India, China and other countries.

For me personally, I consider the chance to have worked with our colleagues in Kenya on the land bills to be one of the greatest privileges of my professional life.  I will say  that it is not easy to be gone as much as I have been. I have three young daughters who I care about more than anything in the world. I was gone from them for over 100 days last year. But I also see their faces and their dreams reflected in the children of Sarah and other women I’ve met in Kenya and beyond, and I believe deeply that the work we do at Landesa will open up a different world of possibility for them. And for the women who care for them.

Comments 2

  1. I am glad to see this especially considering that Masai women are some of the least voiceless in Kenya, case in point the story of peris tobiko the MP elect kajiando east. As well as an Article by asunta waguras in the daily nation on Wednesday 12th march.
    Sometimes last year I engaged a group of widows in kercicho whose land rights have been violated in a big way hope you. An spread wider in Kenya
    Keep up the good work Nd I would be glad to join you am a lawyer with some experience working with grassroots communities.

  2. Am really humbled after reading this,i see there is a light at the end of the tunnel for women land rights in Kenya.
    (Bsc in Land Administration and Management student)

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