Women’s land ownership stymied by local laws that conflict with constitutional laws

by Madalitso Mwando
Thursday, 27 March 2014 12:56 GMT

A farmer digs a ditch to drain a flooded wheat field in Ganyu county, Jiangsu province, China. May 27, 2013. REUTERS/China Daily

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Patriarchal community laws must be aligned with constitutional laws that guarantee women’s rights if faster progress is to be made on women's land ownership, land experts say

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Patriarchal community laws must be aligned with constitutional laws that guarantee women’s rights if faster progress is to be made in the push for women to not only have access to land but also to own it, land experts said.

These recommendations emerged during discussions at the World Bank’s annual conference on land and poverty in Washington this week. While women make up the majority of farmers in developing countries, most are still without land title, effectively limiting their economic empowerment.

Many countries have put in place constitutional guarantees that give women the right to own land, but they frequently conflict with customary laws that still dominate at the village level.

Vinodh Jaichand, head of the school at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said this conflict must be addressed if women’s land rights are to be fully realised.

“There is need to align these two and take a gendered perspective,” Jaichand told the conference.

“Customary and modern legal systems must work in harmony. It is not wrong to have customary law, as long as it does not impinge on women’s rights. Rather than look at differences, there must be balance between the constitution and customary law,” he said.

Calls for legal reform present a huge challenge for many countries where inheritance laws favour male children, which researchers said has meant that the exclusion of women continues from generation to generation.

Some African countries are making good progress in addressing the discordance between the two forms of laws, said Karol Boudreaux, who leads the Land Tenure and Resource Rights Practice at the Cloudburst Consulting Group.

“Customary law can evolve when you work directly with customary leaders about the role women can play in the community,” Boudreaux said.

“Customary law must not always be seen as rigid,” she said.

But Mary Hallward-Driemeier, lead economist at the World Bank, said more work needs to be done in this area. Even when countries have ratified the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), issues concerning women’s land rights will require “active engagement.”

“Some countries are changing their laws but there are many cases where women still require permission from their husbands,” Hallward-Driemeier said.

Tazeen Hasan, a World Bank economist, joined the call for further work on aligning customary and constitutional laws.

“Many countries (in sub-Sahara Africa) have strengthened laws that protect women, what is going to be the challenge is implementation,” she said. And there there is a need for better data collection.

“(It) will help identify the fault line and help make the case for legal reforms,” Hasan said.

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