BlogField Focus Blog

Feb 07 2012

Land rights for women – a ripple effect

People often question Landesa’s emphasis on women’s land rights in our work, from China and India to Rwanda and Kenya.

Why do women need secure rights to land if their husbands already have such rights?  Do we have something against men or male farmers?  Do we think women are better farmers?

All good questions.  For good answers, meet Rwandan farmer and father of five children, Jean Habumukiza.  Jean and his wife grow corn and sweet potatoes on a few tiny plots of land in far northern Rwanda, in the lush foothills near Volcanos National Park.

From 2002 through 2009, Landesa partnered with the Rwandan government to help ensure that Rwandans would have secure rights to land and receive land titles.  In this case, both husbands and wives’ names were included on titles and communities – both men and women again – learned about the process for and significance of getting a land title.

On my recent visit, Habumukiza shared how his family’s life has changed since they received title to their land:

  • They started using fertilizer and tripled their yield of corn.
  • They used the land title to obtain a loan from the bank, which they used to pay to connect their home to the nation’s electrical power grid.
  • They no longer have to waste money in the court system to defend the property from opportunistic neighbors eager to grab a few feet of their patch of land; a regular occurrence in the days before they had titles.
  • Their children (ages 8 to 21) have better prospects now that they can complete their homework at night (thanks to the electricity) and will be able to pay school fees (thanks to the bumper harvest).

But there is another impact he highlighted emphatically during our talk:

“I feel secure and my wife feels secure too, because the women never used to have land. But now my wife owns 50 percent and I own 50 percent,” explained Habumukiza. “I am not worried, now. Even if I die, my wife and children can remain on the land. Because they are also written on the land title.”

Many developing countries, from Liberia to India, are rife with women without land rights, who upon the death of their husbands are thrown off of their land and left with no way to support themselves or their children. National economies continue to suffer from the effects of these children robbed of an education and a future.

“Life has changed for my family, “ said Habumukiza. “Previously, my wife had no claim to the land. But now my wife has 50 percent share and I think our relationship is better, because everyone has a say on the land.”

Now, says Habumukiza, they make decisions together. And he and his neighbors told me that because decisions are made by two people, they are more informed and less impulsive – often that means he and his wife make better decisions.

So for Habumukiza, women’s land rights is a practical matter. For him, it’s not about ideals of equality; it’s not about women’s liberation. It simply is what will help his family in the short- and long-term.

Of course, the ideals of equality and women’s liberation are laudable and reason enough to support the promise of women’s land rights. But in interview after interview with Habumukiza’s neighbors, I found that the poor often have an entirely different set of reasons – mostly based on practicalities – for supporting women’s right to land.

His neighbors like, Fabien Ngendahimana, father of eight, echo this perspective.

“Before, it was easy for a man to go to the bank and sell off his land without his wife even knowing,” said Ngendahimana. “But now life has changed. But now even the crops we plant on the land my wife and I agree on. Previously our way of doing things was dishonest. Before we wasted our money and wasted our land.”

Without prompting, these men challenge those who see women’s rights as a zero sum game, those who fear that helping women get stronger makes men weaker, that supporting women farmers undermines male farmers, that women’s rights is a luxury that the poor cannot afford.  Instead, the Rwandan men with whom I spoke in this far northern corner of the country explained that women’s land rights are something they and their families simply can no longer afford to live without it.

This article originally appeared in Next Billion February 6, 2012. Please follow Deborah Espinosa on Twitter: @deb_espinosa

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