Thursday, March 19, 2009

Women and Land

I had never made the connection between hunger and African women's ability to own land until I read this column in the Boston Globe. Author Liesl Gerntholtz, who is director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, points out that

[W]omen and their children are the most likely to lack food and go hungry. One of the most under-used, and cheapest, mechanisms of ensuring better food security for women is to improve and secure their access to land. Women produce between 60 and 80 percent of food in rural Africa, but laws often allow male relatives to take away their land. Laws that protect their right to property can therefore play an important role in reducing hunger and ensuring access to a dependable food supply.

Both customary laws and statutory laws conspire to take land away from women. The former keep women from inheriting land from their husbands and fathers, and women and their children may be thrown off the land if their husbands die. Statutory laws do not allow women to prevent their husbands from selling land, and if they divorce, they have no legal right to the land. Even where women may legally own land, "patriarchal customs frequently stop them from making decisions about its use." As Gerntholtz concludes, "[p]assing laws that protect women's land rights will cost governments very little, but will go a long way to reducing starvation and improving the lives of African women and children."

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