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Tanzania's women farmers confront customs and complex laws to access land

by Kizito Makoye | @kizmakoye | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 July 2016 13:38 GMT

Houses are seen at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania's Hie district in this 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Katrina Manson

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By Kizito Makoye

LANG'ATA, Tanzania, July 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a remote village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, every woman has a story to tell about how discrimination in the allocation of land has pushed her to the brink of survival.

Agustina Tarimo has been battling for three years to access some land to sustain her livelihood but, since men have priority in accessing land, her efforts have been futile.

"It's hard to own even a small piece in this village if you are a woman," Tarimo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Instead, the 41-year-old divorcee, who lives with her three children at Lang'ata village in the Mwanga district, has been forced to lease a plot of land to grow vegetables and ginger.

"I had to do it to feed my children and pay their school fees," she said.

Like Tarimo, most women in the village find it hard to access land so they can start irrigation farming because of complex rules on land tenure that favour men.

In Tanzania, land rights are enshrined in the Land Act and the Village Land Act, both of 1999, which grant women equal rights to access, own and control land as any man.

However, the reality on the ground for women is much harder because custom dictates that they can only own land through their husbands or male relatives.

"Very few women get land in their own right here, and it has been like that for ages," Tarimo said.

But since 2013, five Tanzanian rights groups have campaigned as the Ardhi Alliance to help women understand their land rights, accept that customary practices are not binding, and show them how to demand property and inheritance rights.


"Eighty percent of women live in rural areas, but less than five percent own their land. When these women are made landless they become an economic burden vulnerable to exploitation," said Faudhia Yassin of the Women's Legal Aid Centre.

For although women farmers know irrigation is an effective strategy to cope with drought, most are unable to access the land and water that they need to sustain their livelihoods.

"Most women do not know the channels they need to follow in order to get land," said Ladislaus Msuya, an official with Lang'ata village government whose council of 17 elected members decides on all land allocation.

Women farmers say only recently has the council begun allocating land - without easy access to water - to women.

In Lang'ata, farming is based on a tenancy system through which farmers pay their landlords with a share of their crops. Frequent droughts have reduced crop yields for women farmers.

"I got 50 bags of maize last season and I gave eight bags to the landlord," said Tarimo. "If I had my own land, I wouldn't be donating my harvests like that."

The situation is even more challenging for Maasai pastoralist women, many of whom have not had a formal education and struggle to find their way through bureaucratic red tape.

"If you are a female herder, you are not likely to get land because it's given to a male farmer," said Janet Lengai, a herder who has 75 heads of cattle. "We used to control swathes of grazing land but it has all been taken away."

As climate change threatens livelihoods across Africa, analysts say increasing women's access to land can be a powerful tool to lift them out of poverty.

"We often perceive pastoralists as being male but when you actually look at where the labour to practice pastoralism comes from, it is supported by women," said Dorothy Mmari, a researcher with Tengeru Community Development Training institute in Arushashe.

(Reporting by Kizito Makoye, Editing by Jo Griffin and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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