Strengthening women’s voices in land decisions: what works?

Philippine Sutz draws together key lessons from Ghana and Tanzania on how to get women’s voices heard in local land governance.

Philippine Sutz's picture
Philippine Sutz is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
31 January 2019
A Tanzanian woman farmer displays her crop. With commercial pressures on land increasing, women farmers in Africa need support to understand, and speak up for, fair land governance (Photo: Georgina Smith/CIAT, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A Tanzanian woman farmer displays her crop. With commercial pressures on land increasing, women farmers in Africa need support to understand, and speak up for, fair land governance (Photo: Georgina Smith/CIAT, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Since the mid 2000s, sub-Saharan Africa has experienced a land rush driven by factors such as rising commercial agriculture, mineral extraction and large infrastructure projects. This has increased pressures on land and the livelihoods that depend on it.

While investments in agriculture can potentially provide local benefits, they often result in communities losing their land due to exclusionary practices.

Women tend to lose out more than men. They are often excluded from decisions that determine land allocation. And with weaker tenure security, the land that provides their main source of livelihood is more easily taken away.

Over the past two-and-a-half-years, IIED alongside partners NETRIGHT, IED Afrique and TAWLA have been implementing a project in Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania that seeks to strengthen women’s voices in local land governance.

As the project nears conclusion, we met in Arusha, Tanzania and over three days – focusing on Ghana and Tanzania – built a deeper understanding of the community land governance frameworks in each country, compared approaches that had been developed and identified common lessons.

While local land governance differs by country, one similarity is clear: women have very limited influence on how land is allocated.

In Tanzania and Ghana this is largely due to a lack of legal implementation and patriarchal socio-cultural norms. Land issues are often perceived as a man’s issue because land is traditionally tied to family lineages and men are generally seen to have sole responsibility for land management and decision-making. Division of labour also plays a role: women tend to work longer hours making it harder to attend community meetings.

Local land governance systems: threats and opportunities

Discussions highlighted that Tanzania’s decentralised governance system – with its local government bodies, gender quotas (the minimum number of women required to be members of village councils) and clear democratic processes for allocating land – holds real potential for developing replicable locally-owned solutions to improve women’s participation.

In Ghana, local-level land management is governed by customary law and practices. Decisions on land allocation are usually made by traditional chiefs or family heads (mostly men) and rarely involve community members. Getting women involved would not only require navigating local customs but also establishing inclusive and participatory platforms.

Tailored solutions

Partners shared the approaches they had developed. TAWLA adopted gender-sensitive village by-laws that involve women in local government meetings and establish village gender committees that promote debate on women’s participation.

This approach is rooted in the national legal framework, making it potentially easier to scale up. After roll-out in six villages, TAWLA was asked by Kisarawe district authorities to expand to the whole district (over 70 villages).

Ways to strengthen women’s voices in local land governance are discussed at a recent meeting in Arusha, Tanzania (Photo: Philippine Sutz/IIED)

In Ghana, NETRIGHT and local partner Grassroot Sisterhood Foundation (GSF) have been working in the Nanton Traditional Area, where they have established ‘community land development committees’ (CLDCs) to mediate between chiefs who administer land, and the community members.

NETRIGHT and GSF worked with the CLDCs to strengthen the groups’ knowledge of how land is governed, and to ensure that at least a third of members were women.  They are currently exploring how to replicate or adapt the approach in other areas, in particular in Southern Ghana.

Six similarities

The approaches differ as each is adapted to the local context. But when rolling them out, some common lessons emerged:

  1. Numbers make a difference: in each case, participation of a minimum number of women in local governance bodies was a good starting point
  2. Knowledge of land governance is key: without relevant knowledge of land governance, women (and men) will not be able to make effective use of tools developed. For any approach to be effective, rules that govern land must be properly understood
  3. Women need strong agency: to ensure long lasting change, women need to be encouraged to examine their attitude towards gender roles and gender dynamics, and ask themselves: how can I make effective choices and speak out for myself? 
  4. Tools must benefit all community members: while women tend to lose out more from commercial pressures on land, ultimately all community members suffer. Although the projects in Ghana and Tanzania focused on women, approaches were developed to benefit everyone in the community – not just women
  5. Changing attitudes takes time: lasting behavioural change requires long-term community engagement
  6. Dialogue is essential: community conversations that debated issues, sought opinions and raised questions were central to the approaches. These conversations give a good sense of where the public stands and can help identify social dynamics.

Four ways to get the community on board

Given that both gender and land governance can be highly sensitive, participants discussed the best techniques to engage communities on those issues. They identified four key lessons:

  1. Identify the right intermediaries: challenging well-established social norms can disrupt social order. Identifying and working with the right intermediaries (such as local government representatives, traditional or religious leaders) can help ensure the community buys in to the proposed approach
  2. Challenge thinking on gender while respecting customs and traditions: communities’ customs and traditions may be gender discriminatory and need to be challenged. However, customs and traditions must be treated with respect. When civil society organisations engage with traditional authorities and leaders on gender, it is key they do so in a considerate way
  3. Work with men and women separately during scoping: in traditional contexts, women tend not to voice their views and opinions in front of men. Partners agreed that engaging with women and men separately during the scoping phase enabled them to better understand the issues women face. Women and men should be mixed further down the line during community dialogues and validation discussions where decisions with community-level implications are made
  4. Getting men on board: to maintain social cohesion and avoid backlash, all community members need to understand the benefit of the intervention. It is key to engage with men so they recognise the positive impact of women’s participation for the community and don’t feel sidelined.

IIED and partners are producing a series of publications to share findings from the project’s implementation. This will include a research report comparing approaches and local lessons and draws wider lessons that have potential for replication. Watch this space.

About the author

Philippine Sutz ( is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

Philippine Sutz's picture