Friday, 25 July 2008 18:00

Give women land rights and make poverty history

Written by Rosemary Okello

The recent statement by the Minister for Lands, Hon. James Orengo that the National Land Policy is ready for cabinet deliberation and final approval is something that is overdue. 

But for the majority of Kenyan women who wallow in poverty and are destitute, the announcement has generated a lot of excitement as they have for a long time been culturally prohibited from inheriting this critical factor of production and source of wealth.

This is because the Land Policy recognizes gender equity as a principle. Such a provision is what women have been advocating for, for donkey years.

Because with it, our society can begin to start seeing women not as bystanders and passive actors, but those who can contribute immensely to economic growth by owning and controlling how this important asset is used. 

An asset that will determine whether they will remain submerged in poverty or excel in life. This was eloquently put by South African Activist, Maureen Mnisi that “the struggle for rights to land is bigger than the struggle to alleviate poverty.” 

Indeed, no one group understands this better than women, who are reputed to produce at least 80 percent of Kenya’s food and with at least 90 percent of their labour being channeled towards food production and processing. 

But because they do not own land, they are never beneficiaries of their sweat. Their men are instead the real winners: they walk to the bank, pick the money, and take-off for holiday with their mistresses. 

Indeed, the fact that it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, to put a finger on precise data on how women are affected by lack of land ownership. 

That is why the proposed draft on Land Policy is welcomed. Secondly, this policy is vital because it addresses the linkages between HIV/AIDS and poverty and land ownership. 

I know there have been a lot of cultural barriers around women and land ownership in Kenya. This is not withstanding that a lot of discussions have taken place on issues around women and land tenure. 

The experience from the past, especially during the 2005 referendum proved how emotional and culturally sensitive these issues can be, and sent a message to women that the struggle will not be easy. The policy might be in law, but in practice, they will have to go an extra mile.   

Some of the arguments made during the referendum included: How can a woman inherit land at her birth place; at her matrimonial home; why would a married woman think of having her own piece of land when her husband has not approved it. 

Since women’s rights to land is either through marriage or through a male relative, this makes them virtually invisible when it comes to benefits, services and earnings from land. They are also absent from the statistics that would make a difference in planning.

Like in the rest of Africa, even where laws have been put in place allowing women to own land, customary practices at times dictates that ownership, making relatives often subvert the official policy.

But I believe that if the Land Policy becomes a reality, we should not give it narrow interpretation. 

As proposed within the draft, there should be what I would call: “Land laws menu,” that will raise critical questions such as “How would you like yours done Ma’am?  It is going to be joint ownership, co- ownership; consent from both partners when one of them sells land; or the right to be present when your man buys land. 

If the Land Policy is in place, can we then start thinking about alternative  forms of land tenure that cater for the realities we are trying to address as a nation.

But for Kenya, it should be recognized that discussions around food security, sustainable development and achieving vision 2030 does not make any sense if the question of land rights is not addressed comprehensively. 

They are the managers of the land; and custodians of indigenous knowledge that ensures sustainable management of our environment. They work the land, know precisely what to plant; and how their families are to be fed throughout the year. 

Every time a government fails to take into account women’s knowledge and experiences in land and agriculture, we condemn the earth. 

Putting women at the centre of land rights is the first step towards sustainable development and alleviating poverty and the Kenyan women will be waiting with bated breath on the outcome of the cabinet’s decision on the draft Land Policy Bill. 

The writer is the Executive Director of AWC Features

This article was also published in the Saturday Standard on JUly 26 2008

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