KIGALI, Rwanda — A recent paper published by the United Nations Entity for Gender Inequality and the Empowerment of Women examined women’s security of land ownership in 49 African constitutions. The study found that while many constitutions contain statements supporting equality and non-discrimination, particularly referencing female property rights, only 20 percent of women across the continent own land.
While measures to promote female land rights have been translated into laws in recent years, social barriers continue to prevent them from being implemented in society. In many countries, women are pressured to relinquish their land rights to their brothers or husbands. If they choose to assert their rights to land, women face traditional restrictions to dispute their entitlements. But in Rwanda, this is not the case. According to Rwanda’s Department of Land and Mapping, women own the highest number of registered land plots in its capital of Kigali.
Like many other countries throughout the continent, all laws prohibiting women from owning public land in Rwanda have been overturned in recent years. So how does Rwanda transform policy into reality?
Rwanda has made significant progress in women’s rights since 1994, when 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped and hundreds of thousands of women were left widowed and traumatized from the genocide. Since then, the fight for gender equality came “second to survival.” Rwandan women formed a powerful coalition, united by the anguish, hopelessness, illness, rapes and torture they endured for months. Today, 64 percent of parliamentarians are women, the highest proportion of any parliament in the world. Women share the assets of marriage and obtain credit. As many girls as boys receive primary and secondary education, maternal mortality is reduced, and birth rates are lower.
While women attained considerable influence in the country, progress in property rights and land ownership did not accelerate until the government launched a nationwide Land Tenure Regularization Program in 2007. With an estimated 10 million parcels of land and one of the highest population densities in the world of approximately 400 people per square kilometer, land has been a recurring source of conflict in Rwanda. LTRP aimed to register and title all plots of land in the country.
By 2013, LTRP successfully registered approximately 99 percent of individually-held land in Rwanda. The program decreased gender equality in access to land, optimized land use for economic growth and established an institutional framework for land ownership.
But the benefits of the program did not end there. By securing land rights for Rwandan women, studies demonstrate that women’s economic empowerment and ownership of land provide them with resources to lift their families out of poverty.
According to a USAID study in Nicaragua and Honduras, women with land rights contribute a greater proportion of income to the household than men, allocating more money for the children’s education and sufficient food for the family. A report in Nepal further revealed that malnutrition is reduced by half when a mother owns the land.
In addition, a study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that if women had the same access to land as men, agricultural yields would increase significantly. This is particularly relevant as the country approaches its deadline for Rwanda Vision 2020, a host of development goals that will transform agriculture into a productive, high value and market-oriented sector.
“Closing the gender gap is everyone’s business. Empowering women means that the entire family benefits, it means that the entire community benefits, it means the entire country benefits and ultimately the entire global world benefits,” said World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.
With women’s land rights demonstrating positive economic and social developments in Rwanda, many African countries should follow Rwanda’s footsteps in transforming policies and laws into actualities for women.
– Abby Bauer
Sources: Thomson Reuters Foundation, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog, The Guardian
Photo: Woman Change Maker