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Liesl Gerntholtz

Women's land rights can help battle hunger in Africa

By Liesl Gerntholtz
March 19, 2009
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I PASS a poster on my way to work in London every morning that never fails to surprise me. It's large, colorful, and cheerfully exhorts us to throw away less food. Apparently, even in the current economic climate, we waste so much food every year that we need a government-led campaign, complete with website and handy food-storage tips, to remind and encourage us to waste less.

While the West grapples with wasted food, the developing world faces the spectre of increasing hunger. The 2008 Global Hunger Index states that 33 countries, mostly in Africa, face a "very serious" threat of hunger. The numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 923 million people were chronically hungry in 2008. This is about 75 million more than in 2007. This is unequivocally a crisis of massive proportions, a global emergency.

There is a human rights dimension to this calamity that is frequently missed or ignored - women and their children are 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.

Customary laws often prevent women from inheriting land from husbands and fathers, and women, along with their children, may be evicted from their homes and lands upon the death of their husbands. As Alice A. explained, "My father-in-law told me he was taking the property because I only gave birth to girls. . . . He gave my husband's land to a stepbrother. . . . I was sent away by my brother-in-law. . . . They said I don't have boys, so they could not give me a piece of land to settle on." Before the death of her husband, Alice A. had cultivated her husband's land, feeding her family from what she cultivated.

Statutory laws may also discriminate against women: Married women cannot stop their husbands from selling land, and if they divorce - or, as is more common, are abandoned by their husbands - they have no legal right to the land. Even though women may legally own their land, patriarchal customs frequently stop them from making decisions about its use.

Property-based human rights violations not only deprive women of their ability to feed themselves and their children, but they can also be fatal in a continent with high levels of HIV. Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Kenya and Zambia shows that women with HIV are particularly vulnerable to these abuses, and that depriving them of their property can lead to ill health and other negative consequences.

There have been calls from women's groups and human rights organizations, to both African governments and the international community, to introduce laws that protect women's property rights. Some progress has been made, including the recent adoption by the South African Development Community of a Gender and Development Protocol in 2008. The protocol recognizes that women have unequal legal status, including in relation to property rights, and calls on states to review and reform all laws and policies that determine access to and control of resources, including land. It explicitly recommends that states protect widows from property grabbing.

While this is a step in the right direction, more must be done to ensure that women have the means to provide food for their families. Passing 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.

Liesl Gerntholtz is director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

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