Land Rights, Gender Equality, and Economic Outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa

Strengthening women’s land rights has important policy consequences for poverty reduction and gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). It is an issue that is also in alignment with realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of ending all forms of poverty (Goal 1) and achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls (Goal 5). Thus, the study on ‘The Role of Land Rights in Gender Equality and Economic Outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa’ [published as a CGD working paper and forthcoming in the Journal of African Development] provides an in-depth analysis of the role of women’s ownership and access to land in SSA in determining gender equality and women’s economic and social outcomes. Its main concern is the channel through which women access and own land in SSA. While there are several channels, including access via the market system and marriage, the study specifically focuses on the inheritance channel through birthright, with a conviction that, relative to the marriage and market channels, it is cheap with no strings attached, and socially and economically empowering. 

It is within this backdrop that the study provides an in-depth analysis of the channels through which women acquire land in SSA, the inherent obstacles and the relevance of land ownership to gender equality and women’s economic and social outcomes; and offers suggestions to inform effective gender-sensitive land policies. The descriptive analysis show that the proportion of women who own land in SSA is 40 percentage points lower than that of men regardless of how the land was acquired, whereby about 30 percent of women own land in SSA, compared to 70 percent of men. Nonetheless, women are more likely to acquire land either through purchase from the market system or marriage, and even then, their rights of ownership are usually very limited and precarious compared to the rights of men.  

Women stand to benefit from land ownership in the same way men have for centuries. More importantly, the multiplier effects of economic and social impact of women’s ownership of land are far-reaching compared to those accrued from men as landlords (Afridi, 2010; Duflo, 2003, Jones and Frick, 2010; Rabenhorst, 2011).  

The dilemma of land reform in SSA 

How does one reconcile the established overwhelming evidence of the beneficial effects of women’s land ownership and the reluctance of countries in SSA to establish and/or proactively enforce national laws that accord women equal rights as men to inherit land? The famous African saying that “land belongs to the man and the produce (food) in it to the woman” embodies the struggle that women face in their quest to own and inherit land in SSA (Arekapudi and Almodovar-Reteguis, 2020). Data from the recent World Bank publication on Women, Business and the Law, show that two-fifths of countries worldwide limit women’s property rights and in 19 countries women do not have equal ownership rights to immovable property, while in 44 countries, male and female surviving spouses do not have equal rights to inherit assets (Arekapudi and Almodovar-Reteguis, 2020).  Unfortunately, reforms related to property ownership and inheritance are the most difficult to pass, especially in SSA where patriarchal land tenure system dictates how land is acquired and passed to future generations (Arekapudi and Almodovar-Reteguis, 2020). Undoubtedly, the plight of women in poverty will continue unless there is significant reform and strengthening of laws, policies, and practices relating to ownership and control of property (Rabenhorst, 2011, Slavchevska, 2021). Improving the property rights of women is both a human right and a means to achieve gender equality, and a fundamental principle that underlies economic development in SSA (Rabenhorst, 2011). 

Of equal importance is the channel through which women should acquire and own land and other immovable property. Studies show that the channel through which societies in SSA prefer women to access and own land, especially in patrilineal societies, is through marriage or purchase from the market system. However, both channels subject women to conditions that men in the same capacity are not subject to. Moreover, unmarried and separated women are by default excluded from this channel. The second channel is conditional on women having sufficient wealth to purchase land from the market system. Even in some parts of SSA, women cannot purchase land without their husbands’ consent (see Ngwa, 2012 for the case of Cameroon). The inheritance channel, which male (compared to female) children are freely entitled to by virtue of their gender, comes with no constraints and has very minimal costs (related to obtaining a title deed). It also comes with a sense of belonging. Thus, acquiring land through the inheritance channel ensures that women can live with agency and dignity (Arekapudi and Almodovar-Reteguis, 2020) and are not subject to the pressures and ills that come with marriage. 

Policy implications 

Customs and traditions are dynamic and not static. 

Resistance to women’s access and ownership of land is deeply embedded in static customs and traditions that promote the perception that land symbolizes male dominance, which is necessary for family, community, and clan survival (Allendorf, 2007; Whitehead and Tsikata, 2003; Agarwal, 1994; Carney, 1998). However, it is now well understood that customs and traditions are not static, they evolve and respond to changing social, economic, and political climates. Customs and traditions that tend to remain static are those that benefit one group at the expense of the other, and they persist when the benefited group controls the economic, political, and social spheres of a community or nation.  

The African Union (AU) recognizes the importance of inclusive land policies in reducing land related conflicts, and therefore, has advocated to member states to adopt innovative hybrid approaches that combine the best in community and statutory land systems by drawing from community experiences in order to buttress customary land rights while, at the same time, ensuring that the rights of women and other marginalized groups are respected. In addition to ensuring compatibility between customary and constitutional and statutory safeguards for women’s land rights, the AU recommended that member states incorporate gender responsive provisions in the statutory framework recognizing customary law and that customary law and practices should not be seen to be violating constitutional provisions that protect women’s land rights (AU 2017).  

Economic development and household welfare 

Land is an important economic resource, a cornerstone of economic development, and a means of achieving food security and overcoming extreme poverty in Africa. From an entrepreneurial perspective, land plays a vital role in investment strategies. In order to access financial credit via the formal financial sector, land title is required (in most countries in SSA) as a major collateral. Beyond the economic relevance, land ownership in SSA is a source of social identity and political power, cultural heritage, and insurance for continuity of clan/family lineage. 

Therefore, in devising effective and gender-sensitive land policies, African governments should approach it from a perspective of enhancing household welfare and overall economic development rather than from cultural and social lenses. In as far as land ownership improves women’s economic, social, and political welfare, it is more likely to strengthen rather than weaken the marriage institution (by providing women secure positions in the marriage and also, increasing overall household assets and wealth); improve human capital development through improved healthcare access, household nutrition and children education; and increase food security and reduce hunger since women in Africa are the biggest contributors to food production. 

Education and awareness of the land rights 

Land laws that grant women the rights to own land can only be effective if there is awareness of these laws, the abilities to invoke them, the general governance environment, and the extent to which statutory laws are practiced instead of cultural norms and traditions (Odeny, 2013). In this regard, African governments that have already instituted gender-sensitive land policies should take a proactive role to increase awareness and educate the public, especially all the stakeholders involved in upholding these land rights, and the women that stand to benefit from these rights. Moreover, those governments that are in the process of designing these policies should incorporate the education and awareness component in their implementation packages to ensure that these policies are effective and produce the intended outcome.  

Land titling, legal complexities and cost 

Land tenure systems that support gender equality will empower women by increasing their agriculture production and disposable income and foster healthy social relationships. However, such a system must also grant women the primary right to own land by issuing title deeds and other legal documents that clearly spell out ownership (Errico, 2021). Also, the process must be inexpensive and less complicated, bearing in mind those with the greatest need tend to be illiterate and poor.  

Consequently, African governments should aim to simplify the titling process, staff land boards with people who are well educated in the laws regarding land rights, and village committees should be gender-balanced with members purposefully elected by the community. Moreover, the village committee members should be objective and tasked with upholding the principles of equal rights to property ownership and should be well trained in matters concerning land rights. The government should also require that, upon marriage, couples should convert individually owned land to joint ownership, with titles reflecting equal and joint ownership. Laws regarding the selling of joint property should be clearly spelled out, and property division during separation or divorce should be clearly outlined and well-understood by the enforcing government agents. The government should also have laws protecting vulnerable women to avoid being preyed upon by cunning husbands or male relatives. The AU consortium also recommends that member countries deconstruct, reconstruct, and reconceptualize existing rules of property under both customary and statutory law in ways that strengthen women’s access and control of land while respecting family and other social networks (AUC-AfDB-ECA 2010).  

Moving forward 

Considering the dilemma of land reform in SSA and the policy implications, African governments should embrace the following insights. First, states should adopt innovative hybrid models that incorporate gender-responsive provisions into their customary, constitutional, and statutory land laws. Second, in devising effective and gender-sensitive land policies states should approach it from a perspective of enhancing household welfare and overall economic development rather than from cultural and social lenses. Third, states should increase awareness of gender-sensitive land policies and educate implementing agents and the public. Finally, states should simplify land titling, enabling women to access and afford the process regardless of marital status, income, and literacy skills.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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