In her name: securing land tenure for women in Zambia

Gender expert Thais Bessa describes how inclusive technology, a gender-responsive documentation process and shifting gender norms are empowering women through secure land rights.

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Insight by 
Thais Bessa
Thais Bessa is global gender advisor for the USAID Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) programme
14 October 2021
What works for women’s land rights?
A series of insights looking at ways to strengthen women’s access to and control over land in Africa
Four people sit on the floor to look at a map on the ground.

The gender and social inclusion officer of Chipata District Land Alliance goes over the boundary map with a family in Chipata, Zambia, ensuring that both the husband and wife are able to give their input about plot boundaries and ownership information (Photo: copyright Clement Chirwa/ILRG)

While Ruth was still mourning the sudden loss of her husband, his younger brother arrived on her three-acre farm to deliver a deadly threat: she must leave her home and farm, or he would kill her and her children.

“He came with an axe,” she recalled. “I was so afraid. I had seven young children and there was nowhere to go and no way for me to feed them except for the farm.”

Taking agricultural land from widows is common across much of the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa, where most land – around 90% – is undocumented. When land is documented, the property is often registered in the name of men, who are considered ‘heads of the household’. Women are left off the documentation, and when their spouses die they regularly lose access to the family land.

In Zambia, laws on state-administered land stipulate that women and their children should inherit land, but in rural areas – such as the Eastern Province, where most of the land is regulated by customary rules – these laws do not apply. Land is divided into chiefdoms and regulated by customary rules.

This is the latest blog in a series looking at ways to strengthen women’s access to and control over land in Africa.

Recognising women as landowners

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) programme is helping to resolve long-standing tensions over customary rights and promoting gender-responsive practices to encourage joint land registration.

To do this, USAID is strengthening the capacity of local land documentation organisations in Zambia’s Eastern Province like the Chipata District Land Alliance and the Petauke District Land Alliance.

Through the ILRG programme, USAID has equipped these organisations with pioneering participatory methods and socially inclusive technologies like USAID’s Mobile Approaches to Secure Tenure (MAST) to document land in areas under customary laws.

The MAST approach is designed for inclusive land documentation, with provisions to include 'persons of interest', which ensures that the process does not inadvertently simplify the representation of rights or consolidate collective rights into an individual one.Over the past six years, USAID’s Integrated Land and Resource Governance programme and the two local partners have documented the land rights of more than 30,000 parcels of land in Zambia, including 155,000 rights holders, nearly half of whom are women.

Leading by example

To complement the MAST approach, USAID integrated gender considerations into every step of the land documentation process.

At the community sensitisation stage, when partners explain land documentation steps and benefits, they also provide information on gender equality and social inclusion. Enumerators from partner organisations, who collect and verify data from each land parcel and landowner, were trained on gender equality, women’s land rights and gender-based violence.

In addition, the Chipata and Petauke District Land Alliances engaged a gender specialist or focal point. Enumerators were encouraged to examine their own biases and how to find socially acceptable ways to encourage the participation of women and youth.

A series of practical guidance tools were developed for enumerators and other field staff involved in the documentation process. These practice ‘notes’ cover topics such as gender-sensitive language, gender sensitisation of communities and household members, best practices on speaking with traditional leaders about gender, and gender-responsive conflict resolution.

The practice notes are useful because they detail specific gender barriers and concrete solutions for each step of land documentation, such as organising meetings and boundary walks around women’s care taking responsibilities, ensuring that registration forms have space for more than one landowner, and collecting sex-disaggregated data.

The USAID approach also involved working with chiefs and other traditional leaders to promote meaningful participation of women in local land committees and gender-sensitive conflict resolution. In Zambia’s Eastern Province, USAID has focused on traditional leaders, also referred to as indunas, to influence changes in gender norms and behaviours in relation to land ownership and access practised in their chiefdoms.

“I always understood that the land belonged to my family, so I never thought I could register my wife and children. Now the programme has helped to understand that if I did so I will be securing the future of my children.’’ – Fashion Lungu, Mtizwa village, Eastern Province, Zambia

With USAID support, the Chipata and Petauke District Land Alliance staff developed their capacity to talk about gender equality at community meetings, centred on the benefits of secure land tenure for men, women, boys and girls. In addition, staff were encouraged to reach out directly to women and men for one-on-one sensitisation sessions.

These dialogues offered a safe space for people to voice concerns and catalysed getting women’s names on land documentation, marking significant progress for women in societies where speaking in front of men or speaking up in public is discouraged.

Securing land, securing futures

Following a one-on-one sensitisation session with a land expert from the Chipata District Land Alliance, Ruth approached the local land committee to share how her brother-in-law was threatening to take her land. The committee intervened on her behalf and allowed her to assert her right to the farmland. Ruth and her children received a land certificate naming them as the owners.

“When I got the certificate and I settled back on the land, my brother-in-law came shortly after to threaten me once again,” recalled Ruth. “But this time I was not scared, I had a certificate, and it says the land belongs to me and my children. I am a landholder because it has the signature of our chief,”  explained Ruth.

“Before, if I spoke up or disagreed with my husband’s parents or brother they would say, ‘you will see.’ Meaning that I am seemingly strong, but they will wait until the day my husband is gone to deal with me. But now that I have my name on the certificate, I feel secure – they can’t chase me away, and I can speak my mind on family issues.” Eunice Zulu, mother of nine – Zoole, Eastern Province, Zambia

Land certificates and the broader documentation and dispute resolution processes are approved by local chiefs, reinforcing local validity and showing the importance of engaging influential stakeholders to ensure women’s safety and secure land tenure beyond having a certificate in hand.

Over the past six years, this work has shown that making land documentation gender-responsive requires a range of complementary approaches: inclusive technology, developing partner capacity, practical and detailed field guidance, and gender sensitisation of communities and traditional leaders.This can empower women to assert their rights, so they are included in land certificates, and change customary law, helping women like Ruth to feel confident that ownership of their land will be secure to support their livelihoods – and the livelihoods of their children – into the future.

Managed through the USAID/Zambia  Economic Development Office, USAID ILRG supports improved land use planning for wildlife and forestry sectors, low-cost and accessible land documentation for communities, and strategies to secure land rights, especially for women. The programme also develops opportunities for communities to benefit from sustainable natural resource management.

This is the third of four contributed blogs to the series by the programme which implements a range of activities related to women’s land rights in six countries: Ghana, India, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

About the author

Thais Bessa is global gender advisor for the USAID Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) programme

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