Making their voices count

The African women protecting their land rights

Long read by
10 September 2019
A group of seated African women gather for a discussion (Photo: Network for Women's Rights in Ghana (NETRIGHT))

Women in Tanzania are increasingly taking a leadership role 

Ashura Juma Mnaula lives in the village of Marumbo in Tanzania. The divorced 38-year-old has three children and, like many women in her community, looks to the land to help her support her family. In 2008 a British firm called Sun Biofuels acquired 8,200 hectares of land nearby. Though the venture soon failed, the land passed to another company and remains unavailable. Villagers were not told that a land deal with Sun Biofuels would mean they could not use this long-held local land to burn charcoal or collect firewood, or even enter the area. If they did, they risked arrest.

Some years later, in 2015, Ashura was inspired by this experience to get involved in a process that seeks to give women more say about local land management. Supported by the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA), Ashura's village was one of several in the region to draw up a new set of bylaws. These local rules were adopted to clarify governance processes and to increase the role of women in land management. She now sits on the village council, which makes decisions on land allocation, as well as on a new women’s affairs committee.

Ashura Juma Mnaula

Ashura Juma Mnaula was inspired to take part in a process that seeks to give women more say about local land management (Photo: TAWLA)

The adoption of the new bylaws has improved local women’s knowledge of land governance and increased their confidence and participation in village meetings. The process has also helped clarify issues around who owns, and who can use, certain land.

“Initially the land allocated to us was not secure enough,” Ashura said.

These days we feel, and we are confident, that our land is secure.

The bylaws process has also changed relations between men and women in the community. Ashura explains: “We have learnt many things. For instance, we now know women's rights; women now participate in meetings.”

There are now eight women in leadership positions in the village; double the previous number.

Map of Africa, highlighting the location of Tanzania, Senegal and Ghana

Women and land in Africa

Women’s access to land in sub-Saharan Africa has long been fragile. In Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal, where IIED has been working, land was historically governed through a variety of unwritten customary arrangements. Land was considered a collective good to be used for a number of purposes, including subsistence and spiritual practices. Women predominantly accessed land indirectly through their affiliation to a family or clan and were largely excluded from decision-making. Today land governance systems have evolved, following multiple socioeconomic and political processes: written laws have been introduced in most African countries alongside the concept of private and individual ownership.

In response to women’ rights movements, the majority of African states have adopted policies and legislation promoting gender equality. In practice, however, gendered customary tenure systems remain widespread and gender-discriminatory practices prevail in many parts of the continent. As a result, most rural African women still have limited control over land and a very little say in land management.

In recent years, women’s access to land has become even more uncertain, in part due to an increasing appetite for land investments. A wave of large-scale land deals for agribusiness has combined with population growth to increase competition for land across sub-Saharan Africa. Natural resource investments have the potential to benefit local communities, but can also harm them. Vulnerable groups, in particular women, tend to lose out the most, due to their fragile tenure security.

To counter this, an IIED-led initiative has worked over the past five years with partner organisations in Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania on three individual projects with the same aim: to strengthen the voices of rural women in local land governance. And in doing so, it is not just women who benefit: more robust local land governance has positive consequences for African communities as a whole.

Map of Africa, highlighting the location of Tanzania

Tanzania’s local rules ‘bring the law home’

Land governance in Tanzania has changed several times since the pre-colonial era. Following independence from Britain in 1961, a legal framework based on the African socialist model emerged. The system recognised customary law, provided it did not contradict the new laws on the statute books.

Reform came in the 1990s. The adoption in 1995 of a National Land Policy led to the enactment four years later of both the Land Act and the Village Land Act (PDF). These laws include specific provisions that defend women’s equal rights to land.

Based on this system, land occupied and used by rural communities is classified as ‘village land’. That classification covers 70% of all land in Tanzania. However, despite the relatively progressive legal framework, women’s access to land remains primarily informal and indirect. They also largely depend on their male relatives.

Sabrina S. Dihomba

When Sabrina S. Dihomba relocated to a rural village, she discovered men were resistant to listening to women's views. This has improved after she was involved in passing of new village bylaws (Photo: TAWLA)

Sabrina S. Dihomba, a 38-year-old woman with five children, moved to a rural village in 2006 after leaving Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar Es Salaam with her husband. Initially, she found men were resistant to hearing women’s ideas about land use; but after being involved in adopting gender-sensitive bylaws in her village, she saw the men become more receptive.

“At first they did not, but after the passing of the bylaws they respect my opinions,” said Sabrina.

“Women were lagging behind, thinking that they do not fit to be leaders,” added Ramadhani Athumani, 60, who works as a farmer, has six children, and serves as a village chairman.

“Also men felt superior to women and men were more motivated to participate in leadership than women.”

The project Dihomba took part in is a collaboration between IIED and TAWLA, the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association. It is taking place in the Kisarawe district, which comprises 71 villages near the Tanzanian coast. The majority of the area’s inhabitants make a living from small-scale crop farming – growing maize, cassava, cashew nuts, and coconut trees, as well as grazing animals.

Like other areas in Tanzania and elsewhere on the continent, Kisarawe has in recent years been targeted by large-scale land acquisitions for commercial purposes. When Sun Biofuels signed a 99-year lease in 2009, the move encroached on the territory of 11 villages. Despite the venture’s rapid failure, the acquisition had long-term implications for local communities.

3:23 This video, an extract from a film by the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association in 2016, explains the impacts of the failure of the Sun Biofuels investments on local communities

Firstly, Sun Biofuels had time to cut down parts of the existing forest to make room for its upcoming plantation, hindering a number of livelihood activities.

Secondly, when allocated to the company, the land was designated ‘general land’, which permanently revokes rights of access, use and control by local people.

“They have taken the land from us and have prohibited us from going into the land or getting firewood,” said Sabrina.

This crucial aspect of the deal was not explained to villagers by Sun Biofuels during the negotiation period; everyone believed their access to and use of the land would continue as usual. Additionally, Sun Biofuels’ promises to build a health centre and create employment for villagers never came to pass. After the company’s swift exit, the land was not returned to villagers: instead, a national company involved in cattle raising took over the lease, and villagers remain excluded.

It was in this district, Kisarawe, where IIED and TAWLA first supported the adoption of gender-sensitive village bylaws. Its goals were to promote women’s voices in land management and improve local governance overall, in a bid to avoid a repetition of the Sun Biofuels debacle. A trial run in 2014-15 saw six villages adopt bylaws of their own design. Subsequently Kisarawe district authorities asked TAWLA to support all 71 villages in the district to work through participatory adoption of bylaws.

Village bylaws are local level rules defined by community members themselves. These help guide how local society is run; they can clarify governance questions linked to natural resource management, land use, farming, social and cultural practices and more, depending on the needs of a specific community. To ensure the way that bylaws consider gender, TAWLA developed model provisions promoting women’s participation in land governance to be debated by community members during the adoption process.

In requiring that women should make up at least one third of village council members, the model provisions mirror an existing requirement in Tanzanian national law – a measure that is not always practiced on the ground. Introducing locally understood and accepted bylaws is a way to ‘bring the law home’.  The model provisions also propose quotas to ensure decisions at the village assembly are not made without a minimum of women participating. They also call for the creation of a ‘gender committee’ to give women a platform to discuss their ideas and opinions; this committee communicates directly with the village council.

6:29 This short video made by TAWLA in 2016 explains how it initially piloted the adoption of bylaws in two villages of the district of Kisarawe with support from the World Resources Institute; its work since then has expanded significantly

The introduction of new bylaws in the Kisarawe District over the past five years has indeed had an effect, even stirring significant social change. The project team found that women are now more present and vocal in village meetings; they actively participate and voice their issues in decision-making assemblies on land issues and more. And they report that the men are now listening.

“Our views are heard. They are implemented,” said Mariam Daud Said, a 41-year-old woman, who lives with her four children in the village of Vilabwa.

We are allowed to ask questions when we go to meetings. The leadership is good, women are now appreciated, given priorities; we are no longer abused.

Mariam Daud Said
Mariam Daud Said

Mariam Daud Said, member of Tanzania Social Action Fund (TASAF), says the views of women are not not only heard, they are implemented (Photo: TAWLA)

The men of Vilabwa have largely come around to the scheme. Athumani, the village leader, is happy with the increasing role played by women. He said: “I feel good because they used to be abused before but not now. I am ready and we are already working together.” In his village the 12 men on the council have been matched by 12 women.

Mohamed Mohamed Mgagara, a 48-year-old who farms cassava, cashew nuts and peas from Marumbo, described the village before the new rules as “like a house without a door; expect every animal to enter the house”.

But now things are different: “These bylaws have brought about order and peace in the village and they have reduced conflicts and misunderstanding,” he said.

Likewise, Mohamed has seen a change in relations between men and women.

“It is equal rights, 50/50,” he said.

Some challenges remain. Ensuring local leadership buy into new bylaws is vital but can be difficult. While the process overall has been well-received in most villages in Kisarawe, there was some resistance as the project rolled out to other districts.

TAWLA received support from Danida, the Danish international development agency, to take the bylaws project to the Arumeru district in Northern Tanzania. But engaging with the predominantly pastoralist communities there, in particular men and traditional leaders, proved particularly challenging.

In Arumeru, the power of traditional Maasai authorities remains strong; sometimes acting as a parallel government to the village council. This renders the first step of making contact with community leaders more difficult, as the perceived authority of both district and village representatives collides with local political arrangements.

3:23 Ramadhani Asumani, a farmer and village chairman, shares his views on women and leadership

Twice in Arumeru the bylaw adoption process took almost two years from start to finish, with a greater-than-usual amount of time and resources needed to bring traditional authorities on board. This shows how deep traditional roles are embedded: while some of the new provisions reflect existing national law on requiring equal access to land for men and women, resistance remains.

Map of Africa, highlighting the location of Ghana

Ghana: making space for shared decisions

While the system of land governance is different from Tanzania, Ghanaian women’s access to land, and their involvement in land governance decisions, is similarly limited. Customary law is legally recognised in Ghana where 80% of the land is held under customary ownership. As a result, the country is home to a multitude of land governance arrangements, reflecting its ethnic and cultural diversity.

Customary land is usually collectively owned and controlled by communities (known as ‘stools’ or ‘skins’), families or clans and governed according to traditional norms. In these systems, land is held in trust by chiefs or heads of families.

Meanwhile, demand for land in Ghana has increased considerably in recent decades, due to population growth, urbanisation and commercial enterprisesInvestors and developers have acquired swathes of territory; this has fuelled speculation and driven up prices. In certain areas land deals have progressively moved away from traditional community-based methods of negotiation to commercial, market-based transactions. This has not only led to cases of dispossession of local communities – with direct impacts on livelihoods and food security – but has explicitly exacerbated the already vulnerable position of women.

1:29 Short video made by NETRIGHT explaining how land-based investments are threatening tenure security in Ghana

In the Nanton Traditional Area – an area covering nine communities around Tamale, Ghana’s third largest city where IIED's project has been implemented – farming constitutes the main source of income. Pressures on local land have sharply increased since the late 2000s, mirroring the national picture. This is due to commercial development, particularly for mango and jatropha farming, and the construction of brick and textile factories. Chiefs have bargained away large areas of land, often without consulting community members. The lost areas were prime land for local communities, primarily farmed by women while men worked lands further from home.

The acquisition of those lands by both public and private groups has forced women to look further from their villages for available farmland. This is particularly acute in three of the nine communities: Sanzirigu, Wamale and Lahagu are now considered ‘urban areas’, where the majority of women farmers must travel to other villages to find land to work. The scarcity of farmland in those communities also means that men and women are now competing for what little land is still available, leading many – especially women – to abandon farming altogether.

Meimunatu Alhassan

Farmlands have been hard to find for Meimunatu Alhassan (Photo: NETRIGHT)

Meimunatu Alhassan, who chairs the women’s group of Sanzirigu, is one of those affected by these changes.

“This village has no farm lands, we farm outside the village,” she said. “We move across the neighbouring villages – Sambu, Kagid, a suburb of Kpalibe – during the farming season to beg for farm lands.”

Rahinatu Yakubu, a female trader and farmer who is married with children, is also feeling the impact of increased demand for land.

“Frankly they sell the lands to people for real estate purposes and that makes it difficult for us since farming brings us our ends means,” she said.

Across all the communities, around 60% of farmers have turned to agro-processing and small-scale trading to compensate for the loss of income. Additionally, approximately 80% of young people have left for urban centres such as Accra, Kumasi and Tamale, taking menial jobs, and contributing to the depopulation of rural areas.

As available land decreases, women – who are largely excluded from decision-making processes and can hardly claim access to land on their own – are disproportionately vulnerable to losing their livelihood.

There is currently no space for women to take part in the decision-making processes on land run by traditional authorities as Ghana’s customary tenure system lacks institutionalised arrangements that could grow to include broad-based participation of community members. Promoting women’s participation in land governance within existing institutions – the approach taken in Tanzania – is not an option here. A space must first be created.

This is what the Network for Women’s Rights in Ghana (NETRIGHT) and its partner, the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation (GSF), have set out to address in the Nanton Traditional Area with support from IIED. The project’ core approach consists of establishing and strengthening community land development committees (CLDCs) and complementing their work by developing a model tenancy agreement to strengthen women’s tenure security.

CLDCs were initially established in the project area in 2013 by GSF, as it sought to create spaces where equal participation in land management decisions was possible. The committees are community-level advisory bodies, each working within a single village. They act as intermediaries on land governance issues between community members and traditional chiefs. They assist traditional authorities with land-related decisions and to help community members get much more involved in land management, especially underrepresented, vulnerable social groups such as women and young people.

“At the organisational level, we envision a society where women are part of decision-making,” said Fati Alhassan, executive director for GSF. “Personally, I want women to tell their stories and make their own decisions without someone making decisions on their behalf.”

CLDCs have between five and nine members and must include a minimum of 30% women. Committee members are responsible for liaising with the rest of the community on land issues, assisting their fellow villagers with land-related requests, and working to guide traditional leaders on the need to safeguard all community members’ interests.

Fati Alhassan, executive director for GSF

Fati Alhassan, executive director for GSF, explains how she worked with community land development committees to strengthen their capacity (Photo: NETRIGHT)

When the committees were first established, some were slow to take effect because more technical capacity and guidance was needed, but local people believed they had the potential to deliver positive outcomes. And in April 2016, a national policy dialogue agreed that stronger CLDCs could help promote gender-equitable land governance. 

This is when NETRIGHT and GSF began work to build up the committees to help them reach their full potential, with IIED providing technical support and funding. The project team worked with CLDCs members throughout the duration of the project to strengthen their capacity – notably by ensuring that they had an adequate understanding of land governance processes and supporting them to develop and implement action plans.

4:13 Fati Alhassan, executive director for GSF, is interviewed about the impact of their work for women in Ghana

Since then, there has been a ripple effect: women have become more vocal and confident. More are speaking in village forums, adding their voice to debates concerning tenancy agreements and other land-related matters. Their public speaking skills have improved, and they are becoming increasingly confident to make claims to defend their interests in front of men. Their views are likewise increasingly accepted by the communities across all nine villages in Nanton Traditional Area.

“There was a time when women could not comment on farmland issues without fear,” said Alhassan, chair of Sanzirigu’s women’s group. “With the introduction of this group [the community land development committee] we have by far seen its importance, and that alone encouraged me to join fully.

We ought to speak our truth without letting the men speak for and decide for us.

Rahinatu Yakubu is not a member of a community land development committee, but has noticed a positive impact. “The committee has further blurred the gender barriers between men and women,” she said. “Though not a member, I dare say we have benefited greatly from the committee since it has given us direct interaction with men.”

Rahinatu Yakubu

Although not actively involved in the process to increase women's participation in land decision, Rahinatu Yakubu, a trader and farmer, believes the entire community has benefited (Photo: NETRIGHT)

NETRIGHT has been working with the same communities, supported by CLDCs, to develop a model tenancy agreement. This is designed to help women (and men) formalise the temporary rights that they have been informally granted on a plot of land. This would work rather like a lease, and therefore offers greater security of tenure.

In general, men are supporting these moves in Ghana. Changes in men’s attitudes have taken place: they are conscious of the need for women to have secure access to land, and are acting on this. Communities are 'competing' to see who gives its women more land and women are also encouraged by their spouses to seek more land outside the immediate vicinity to increase production and incomes.

There is also recognition that the previous situation was far from ideal; Ali Salifu, a village sub-chief, told NETRIGHT that “prior to the committee, the women were suffering”.

Abu Ziblim, a husband and father of three from the Wamale community, believes the project has “thrown more light on the issues of women and land governance” and that women’s participation in all aspects of village life has a positive impact on every community.

Map of Africa, highlighting the location of Senegal

Sowing seeds of change in Senegal

Senegal is the third country where IIED focused on the need for women to be heard on land-related issues: here too women face challenges when it comes to accessing and controlling land.

Senegal’s current land governance framework has been shaped by successive historical transitions. In pre-colonial times, customary practices governed tenure, and land was held collectively by families and lineages. Women accessed land indirectly through their affiliation to a family or clan. Practices such as the recording and registration of formal rights were then introduced during the French colonial period. After independence, a new tenure system requiring all land users to formally register their rights was adopted; the widespread use of customary tenure was no longer legally recognised.

However, a lack of detailed regulation of land allocation processes, coupled with limited local capacity and the persistence of customary practices, has severely hampered the practical realisation of Senegal’s current land governance system. Land often remains exploited without formal rights to do so, and many women do not benefit from equal rights to land despite the constitution’s commitment to gender equality. In practice, most Senegalese women still rely on male relatives to access land; women farmers for instance are often only granted informal access to a small plot of their husband’s land.

Women also remain largely excluded from land governance processes despite the progressive legal framework. This, coupled with the lack of formal rights, means their tenure security remains weak. This marginalised standing contributes to the risk of women’s overall economic, social and political position.

2:11 Sociologist Fatou Diop Sall explains why women do not participate in local governance bodies making decisions on land in Senegal

In certain parts of Senegal, commercial pressures on land aggravate this situation further. As in Tanzania and Ghana, these pressures have drastically increased over the past 15 years due to rising demand for agricultural, mining and extractive products. In areas such as the Senegal river valley and the Niayes region where the project has been implemented, large-scale land acquisitions by domestic or foreign investors have led to numerous cases of dispossession, displacement and conflict. Women, with their weak land rights, feel the harshest effects.

It is in this context that IIED and Innovation Environnement Développement en Afrique (IED Afrique) decided to pilot an initiative in Darou Khoudoss that would promote women’s participation in land allocation processes. This is a coastal municipality in the Niayes area, in the Thiès region, encompassing 66 villages. Alongside important fishing and tourism industries, the region is also a significant farming centre: it produces most of the fruit and vegetables sold in local markets across the towns of western Senegal. In Darou Khoudoss approximately 80% of the 40,963 inhabitants are smallholder farmers, livestock farmers or fishermen.

Darou Khoudoss is also known for phosphates extraction, which has been taking place since the mid-1950s. Operations intensified from the mid-1990s, when Industries Chimiques du Senegal (ICS) was granted a concession. This development led to the progressive eviction of local communities and the relocation of numerous villages.

With limited agricultural land available and no strategies adapted to the regional socioeconomic landscape – for example, a lack of support to assist farmers in retraining or finding alternative work – livelihoods have been severely undermined. This is a direct risk to many households’ food security.

Women have joined forces by establishing their own economic interest groups across the area – a fairly common practice across West Africa – and have managed to secure some communal access to land through these groups. However, the plots are tiny; too small to allow them to be financially independent. Women in Darou Khoudoss feel that the lack of transparency in land allocation and the absence of their peers on the local land commission are both important obstacles to the formal allocation of land to their peers.

In light of those challenges, IED Afrique sought to strengthen women’s participation in land governance in Darou Khoudoss with a two-pronged approach: promoting the appointment of female members to the municipality’s land commission, while supporting the negotiation of a land governance charter that formalises the process for admitting women.

To build a broad consensus on the need to have women on the land commission, IED Afrique engaged with the municipal team and other stakeholders, opening a dialogue on the value of women’s participation. And, having successfully established this, the organisation went on to work with women’s groups and village chiefs to develop selection criteria for appointing women to the commission. Darou Khoudoss was split into five geographic zones, each responsible for selecting a representative through its local women’s group.

In late 2018, the appointment of five women was approved by the municipal council and a first meeting of the newly configured land commission took place early this year. The new representatives will bring a gender-equality lens to allocation processes and influence how land is allocated.

Meanwhile, work on the land governance charter – which would formalise arrangements between the municipality and local women – has been less straightforward. Local consultations and negotiations delivered a draft charter clarifying the mission and role of the land commission, as well as the selection process of female members and promoting more inclusive governance. But agreeing the content of the charter with the municipal council and existing commission members has proven difficult. Establishing a minimum quota for land allocation to women, as put forward by some female members, was especially knotty. To date, no agreement has been reached. Some men seem to feel threatened by the possibility of losing out if more land is allocated to women.

Despite this stand-off, integrating women into the municipality’s land commission has paid off: local women’s interest in and understanding of land management has increased significantly. Women are more motivated to challenge established structures; women’s economic interest groups have become more active on land issues. The number of claims to land plots filed by women has increased since the initiative began. Women also now have a better comprehension of the technical requirements involved in the application procedure.

An illustration of An African women, with how shadow showing a raised arm

A sure start: “Many women have confidence”

Although each project has been tailored to each country and its context, the overall aim across this initiative has been the same: to strengthen women’s participation in land governance, improve their knowledge of how the system works, and promote their ability to act for themselves.

And in all three countries, progress has been made. Bringing women to the table has brought about changes that benefit men just as much as women, including more inclusive and transparent governance practices and establishing or strengthening local governance bodies. While this work is based on gender equality, its benefits ripple out and the whole community benefits.

If you educate a woman, you educate the whole nation.

Ultimately, a village that is drawing on the knowledge and skills of all of its members is more able and prepared to protect its interests from outsiders, as well as better organised to manage disputes between community members – be they land related or not. Many heads are better than one when something so vital as land and livelihoods – the foundation of health, education and wellbeing – are under threat.  

The approaches piloted by IIED’s partners – TAWLA, NETRIGHT and IED Afrique – are yet to be implemented at scale and more efforts are needed to ensure that Africa’s women receive equal access to land. However, given the entrenched challenges to realising women’s land rights, it is no exaggeration to say the work of these local organisations has already changed lives.

Describing her work with the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, village council member Ashura Juma Mnaula says: “TAWLA has given me confidence. These days, many women have confidence.”

But it's Meimunatu Alhassan, who leads her village’s women’s group and worked with NETRIGHT in Ghana, who has the last word, quoting an African proverb: “If you educate a woman, you educate the whole nation.”

By Philippine Sutz, senior researcher (legal tools team), Natural Resources


Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA)

Network for Women’s Rights in Ghana (NETRIGHT)

Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation (GSF)

Innovation Environnement Développement en Afrique (IED)

Further resources

Project: Gender, land and accountability in the context of agricultural and other natural resource investments

How local rules can promote inclusive land governance in Tanzania, Mary Richard, Philippine Sutz, Amaelle Seigneret (2019), IIED Briefing

A stronger voice for women in local land governance: effective approaches in Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal, Philippine Sutz, Amaelle Seigneret, Mary Richard, Patricia Blankson Akapko, Fati Alhassan, Mamadou Fall (2019), Research report

Article: Local solutions to strengthen women’s voices in land governance (May 2019)

Blog: Strengthening women’s voices in land decisions: what works?, by Philippine Sutz (January 2019)

When investors come knocking: ensuring African women have a say, Catriona Knapman, Philippine Sutz (2016), IIED Briefing

Mainstreaming gender in Tanzania’s local land governance, Nasieku Kisambu (2016), IIED Report

Reconsidering approaches to women’s land rights in sub-Saharan Africa, Catriona Knapman, Philippine Sutz (2015), IIED Briefing