RURAL WOMEN’S ACCESS TO LAND
Forum for Social Studies
In Rural Ethiopia women constitute almost half of the
population. Their contribution to the country’s agriculture is significant.
The latest agricultural census results, (Central Agricultural Census
Commission, 2003), show that out of the estimated 54,548,079
total population in agricultural households, 27,014,361 (49.5%) are women.
Among those members of the agricultural households who were engaged in
economic/productive activities women constitute almost half (49.6%) of the
total population. Despite this significant contribution to the economy and
social development however, women do not enjoy the fruits of development
equally as their male counterparts.
Recently, there is a growing concern about women’s conditions
in the development process. Important government development policies and
strategies have acknowledged women’s disadvantage and some measures are
initiated to support them. National Policy of Ethiopian Women (1993),
Development Social Welfare Policy (1996), Food Security Strategy (2002),
and the Ethiopian Women’s Development Fund (2001) have important focus on
advancing women’s causes. The 1995 Federal Constitution provides that women
have equal rights with men. The Ethiopian Sustainable Development and
Poverty Reduction Program/SDPRP (2002) takes gender as a cross-cutting
issue. It underscores that “inclusion of gender in any effort to alleviate
poverty is non-negotiable”.
Still, women in general and female-headed households in
particular are identified as disadvantaged. Studies and
government policy documents ( for instance ESDPRP 2002, Food Security
Strategy 2002) identify women in general and female-headed households in
particular as belonging to the most vulnerable groups of the society.
ESDPRP shows that for the 1999/00 survey year, poverty index (in %) for
national female-headed households was 43. It was indicated that in terms of
determinants of poverty in rural areas, female-headed households face 8.9%
higher probability of being poor as compared to male-headed households.
There is also a trend that female headship is increasing. The ESDPRP
document indicates that female-headed households constitute 26% of the
The food security situation assessment also shows the same
trend (Food Security Strategy 2002). Food insecurity is taken as one of the
defining features of rural poverty. Both chronic and transitory problems of
food insecurity are widespread and severe in Ethiopia. The incidence of food
poverty was found high, estimated at 50% of the population (52% rural and
37% urban). The gender dimension of food insecurity is again critical in
Ethiopia. Female-headed households are identified as belonging to those
groups of households with chronic food insecurity. The National Coalition
for Food Security (2003) notes the significant proportion of the 5 million
most chronically food insecure people in the country are women and
specifically female-headed households. The Coalition also cites a
destitution study in the northern highlands of the country that found 35% of
those destitute households were female-headed ones. This shows
over-representation of female-headed households among people living in
severe poverty situation.
causes of rural women’s poverty is their inadequate access to resources and
to rural land in particular. In such agrarian and subsistence economy,
access to land is considered as an important element of such development
programs as ESDPRP. Here again, important government documents note the
problem and suggest some measures.
Federal Constitution provides that women should have equal rights with men
with respect to use, transfer, administration and control of land. It also
adds that women shall enjoy equal treatment in the inheritance of
property. In addition to such strategies and policies, women’s access to
resources has also been provided in some legislation. The Federal Rural
Land Administration Law (1997) has provisions regarding women’s equal access
to such critical resource. It states that the land administration law of a
Region shall confirm the equal rights of women in response of the use,
administration and control of land as well as in respect of transferring
and bequeathing holding rights (Part Two, Art. 5 (4)). Contents of a land
administration law enacted by each Regional Council, shall (Part Two,
Art.6) ensure free assignment of holding rights …, without differentiation
of the sexes… (Sub-Art. 1), and lay down a system based up on
transparency, fairness as well as the participation of peasants, especially
of women, for purposes of assigning holding rights and carrying out
distribution of holdings (sub-Art.10).
This paper is intended to assess the
situation of rural women’s access to land. It is based on review of
literature and the author’s experiences. It highlights mechanisms of access
to land (both the theory and the Ethiopian experience), presents brief
review of the situation of rural women’s access to land, and raises some
important areas of policy and research on the issue.
Significance and Mechanisms of Access to
Land: Theoretical Discussions
Land is considered as the primary
means for generating the livelihood for most of the poor living in rural
areas. It is generally argued that access to land will affect not only
productive outcomes but also the ability of the poor to access credits, make
investments, and benefit from the rule of the law in general (WBI, 2003).
According to the WBI
(2003) the way in which access to land is determined and secured determines
(a) a household’s ability to produce its subsistence and generate market
surplus; (b) its socio-economic status; (c) its incentive to exert
non-observable efforts, make investments, use resources sustainably; (d) and
its ability to self-insure and/or access financial markets. It is also
argued that among the situations that create and perpetuate rural poverty
are ill-defined property rights or unfair enforcement of rights to
agricultural land and other natural resources. The right to adequate land
and water is a key importance in reducing rural poverty (Khan 2000, IFAD
2001). Empirical studies also indicate that owner-occupied farming is an
important source of livelihood for rural people, especially the poor. The
idea is that for the rural poor, secure access to land is not just an issue
of farming but also asset formation. It is found that poverty incidence
rises as the amount of land owned or operated by poor rural households
declines. The poor who operate land can benefit a lot: they can combine it
with labor, skills and other inputs, eating or selling the product and
reaping a higher share of net income (IFAD, 2001).
Maxwell and Weib
(1998:1) argue that in any rural and agrarian economy, access to and rights
in land and natural resources are central to an analysis of livelihood
strategies and livelihood security. Meimed-Sanjak and Lastaria-Cornheil
(1988) also stated that understanding the linkages between access to land
(size and ownership structures) and access to other sources of income and
capital is an essential element in the policy dialogue about food security
and poverty reduction. Access to land and other natural resources is also
considered as one of the indicators of food security.
Access to land is mainly mediated through property rights
systems and land tenure in place. Tenure institutions directly affect food
access at the household level in a primarily agrarian society by governing
access to resources (Maxwell and Weib 1998). Ogolla and Mugabe (1996)
noted that land tenure defines the methods by which individuals or groups
acquire, hold, transfer or transmit property rights in land.
De Janvry and Sadoulet (2001) indicated that, most of the
land in use has been accessed through private transfers, community
membership, direct appropriation, and market transactions. The different
paths of access to land in formal or informal, or in collective or
individualized ownership include: (a) intra-family transfers such as
inheritances, inter-vivo transfers, and allocation of plots to specific
family members, (b) access through community membership, (c) access through
land sales and rental markets and, (d) access through specific non-coercive
policy interventions such as collectivisation schemes, decollectivization
and devolution, and land market-assisted land reform. The authors discuss
these mechanisms as follows.
such as inheritances, inter-vivo transfers, and allocation of plots to
specific family members have fundamental importance particularly where land
frontiers are closed, land redistribution programs not implemented, and land
markets are yet poorly developed. Intra-household transfers can be
inter-vivo, for instance as grants of land to sons when they get married, or
post-mortem through inheritance. The questions here are: (i) who gains
access to land and who is excluded, and hence, what are the poverty and
equity implications of these transfers? and (ii), under what terms and
conditions is the land received, and hence whether or not it will be
possible for the new users to cultivate the land efficiently? The authors
specified that categories that tend to be excluded from access to land are
the weaker household members: girls in general, divorced women, illegitimate
children, orphans, return migrants, and women who were married without bride
price and are prevented by brothers when they return to their parent’s
home. Understanding intra-household powerplays toward inheritance is thus
fundamental to put into place safety nets for the weaker categories.
It is also indicated that in Sub-Saharan
Africa, as land markets tend to develop with the individualisation of
property rights, access to land via inheritance is also altered. Land that
has been acquired by parents through the market, instead of having been
inherited through lineage relationships, is not subjected to traditional
inheritance rules. This gives freedom and discretion to parents in
transmitting land to some and excluding others potentially leading to
inter-generational and intra-family conflicts.
Land markets are also important
mechanisms of land transfer. It is pointed out that land markets have a
number of important functions that affect livelihood and food security.
Transfer of land from less to more productive producers, an adjustment to
shocks, and the optimum use of scarce land resources with the emergence of
the off-farm sector are among such functions. However it is also indicated
that access through land sales and rental markets work well if some
conditions are fulfilled. If all markets work perfectly, land sales and land
rental markets would be equally effective in providing access to land to the
rural poor. However, in a context of market failure and missing
institutions, land sales markets may not be effective for this purpose. In
such situations, land sales markets tend to play regressively on
smallholders leading to the concentration of land ownership. The reasons
are: land is overpriced for agricultural use because it has other side
benefits, the poor do not get long term loans, land sales markets tend to be
segmented by farm size benefiting large farmers, land sales markets have
high transaction costs and low participation, land prices correlate with
agricultural profits and make it difficult for poor farmers. In this
regard, it is underlined that "the market, left to itself, is
generally hostile to the poor" ( p.17).
of land rights is generally assumed to facilitate land transactions, there
are also situations in which this is not the case. De Janvry and Sadoulet
indicated that in some situations, formal titling may in fact worsen the
security of access to land and constrain land market transactions: titling
may increase transactions costs in the circulation of land, create new
sources of conflict, and not add anything to efficiency in resource use.
restrictions in land sales in many countries, rental markets are most
important in many cases. And access to land through personalized contracts
can serve to mitigate many market failures and institutional gaps. Via land
rental, poor households can eventually progress toward the desirable goal of
land ownership. De Janvry and Sadoulet also noted that rental markets have
many advantages over sales markets: a) they allow flexibility in adjusting
land area used with low transaction costs, b) require limited capital
outlay, thus leaving the limited available liquidity for productive
investments rather than locking it up in land, c) facilitate easy
reallocation of land toward more efficient users than current owners
(elderly, non-cultivating heirs, or urban beneficiaries), d) provide entry
points for the landless as a stepping stone toward land ownership, and e)
help overcome, through sharecropping arrangements, market failures in labour,
insurance, credit, management and supervision.
Weakness of property
rights, however, either because titles are insecure or because rights are
not enforced in case of conflict is a major factor in reducing supply of
land in rental. Government interventions affecting rental markets are often
motivated by perceived social justice considerations. But it is noted that
those interventions had also implications for productivity and in general it
could make both parties worse off. Legal and other restrictions on the
functioning of rental markets would have a negative impact on agricultural
productivity and household’s welfare, discourage investment, off-farm
employment and migration and could increase the insecurity of land rights.
In light of such cautions, it was suggested that restoring the dynamics of
land rental markets to help poor rural households gain access to land
remains a potentially effective area of intervention in the struggle against
Another mechanism is
access through community
membership. It was
underlined that access to land via membership in communities that have
control over resources remains very important. In corporate communities,
land is accessed through community membership and is allocated to
individuals through the community governance structures (mostly grazing and
forest lands). If open access, it leads to the tragedy of the commons and
lastly leading to exhaustion of resources. So sustainability of resource
use is one important concern within this mechanism of access to land. It is
argued that given limited government capacity to regulate the use of such
resources, it is important to improve the efficiency of accessing land in
community property resources by identifying and promoting adoption of best
practices for community management.
Another mechanism of access to land by the poor is facilitated through
direct government intervention. This includes access through specific
non-coercive policy interventions such as collectivisation schemes,
decollectivization and devolution, and land market-assisted land reform.
For instance in many countries collective farms were given back to former
owners, distributed to workers, distributed in individual farms.
Land market-assisted land reform is sought in such a
situation that since the market, left to it self, is generally
hostile to the poor, the state can devise a set of interventions to alter
the performance of the land market in favour of the rural poor. This
is the land market-assisted land reform approach that has been sponsored by
the WB in Colombia, Brazil, and South Africa.
Mechanisms of Access to Land In Rural Ethiopia
Though administrative redistribution of land is the most commonly mentioned
transfer of land since the 1975 rural land reform, and despite legal
restrictions of many transfer mechanisms, diverse mechanisms of access to
land have been active in the country. These include both the formal
administrative and informal and customary ways (land redistribution,
inheritance and gifts, land markets, land access through community
membership, resettlement and squatter settlements).
The 1975 land reform was considered successful in terms of
granting access to land to Ethiopian farmers. In the literature one
commonly finds that since then continuous, frequent, or persistent land
redistributions had been the major characteristics of the rural land tenure
system. The literature also shows that this has been the most important
mechanism of access to land by those peasants. In the process, it was argued
that plots have changed hands frequently and peasants lost sense of tenure
security over those holdings and it has also led to diminution of holdings.
However, it seems that this subject has remained less understood. In the
literature and in the minds of many people outside the farmers themselves,
redistribution is depicted as a very negative practice with all damaging
consequences. This also informs policymaking resulting in policy decisions
that banned redistribution practices since the mixed economy policy
announcement of the Derg (except the 1997 Amhara case). However, closer
observations suggest that no adequate efforts have been made to understand
the meanings, causes, scope and frequency and results/impact of
redistribution (for detailed discussions see Yigremew 2000).
It is with such a situation that redistribution, which could
have plaid important role in reallocating land and both in terms of equity
and production, is cursed and somewhat ruled out at least in policy
intensions (but there are still forms of land redistribution in federal and
some regional land laws). There are now intentions to certify landholdings
in regions while there are, as seen above, serious inequalities and high
expectations of redistribution among communities at different areas of the
country. Moreover, it is not clear, in the absence of conditions for
supporting the poor to benefit from and lack of proper functioning land
markets, as to what will replace the practice of redistribution in absence
of other mechanisms of official land allocations and lack of adequate
other forms of family transfers.
As mentioned above,
intra-household land transfers are important means of land allocations
particularly when government reallocations are non-existing or not effective
enough. This could take the form of inheritance, gifts, and other.
Aklilu and Tadesse (1994) noted that under
the policy that ended redistribution (since 1990), peasant households and
particularly those new ones formed after 1990 relied heavily on four venues
of access to land. 1) land inherited from their parents or other relatives,
2) land rented in from relatives or non-relatives. 3) land available from
people without heirs and who have either left the area or passed away, and
4) land obtained from complex socio-economic arrangements.
These are important mechanisms of access
to land to new generations particularly in cultures that respect the right
of sons and daughters to get access to family land. This is what happens in
Northern part of Ethiopia where parents used to give land to their sons in
the form of gulima (land given from parents to sons at the time when the
youngsters build their own households).
A case study in Gojjam, northwest
Ethiopia, (Yigremew 2000) shows the significance of such a transfer
mechanism. Forty-two young male household heads that have established their
households after the 1975 land reform were interviewed about their sources
of land they cultivate. It was found that as per the tradition of the
community, they had generally been working with their parents after they
were married and have started living in their separate homes with their
wives until they gained the status of an economically independent and
separate household. During such a period, the son does not generally own
land and is not a taxpayer adult. Then comes the time, when the sons start
their independent household lives. Culturally, the sons have to stay with
parents with siso (1/3rd) share of produce and when they start to
have their independent household and farm, they are theoretically given
siso (1/3) of the family’s land. After the land reform, and in theory,
however, such young married people were entitled to have access to land
through the peasant association. In the case study area, however, it was
found that the source of their land was largely the families’ holdings and
the mechanism was mainly traditional intra-household transfer rather than
redistribution by officials. In the area, the tradition of the gulima
land is still considered as a moral obligation. It was found that, out of
those 42 young household heads, 33 (78.6%) have got land exclusively from
their families’ possessions at the time of establishing their independent
households. The respondents have indicated that parents gave such plots to
them willingly. However, this is not to generalize that this happens in
every household, to everybody and everywhere.
Another administrative impact on such
transfers is that during the Derg time land was allocated according to
household size giving recognition to the right of a child to claim land
whenever required. But there are instances that such a system could be
disturbed by an administrative intervention of governments. A case in point
is the 1996 Amhara land redistribution that was based more on political
criteria than family size and this might have weakened the claim-making
power of children. Now as well, what will happen after the intended land
certifications in different regions is another area of concern in terms of
land access to young people.
There are intra-household and
inter-generation conflicts on access to land. There are cultures different
from the above case study. There are policy and administrative issues
affecting such forms of access, to mention few. There is gender difference
in the issue. While the patrilocal residence affects women's access in the
north in general, in the other parts of the country there are cultures that
may not allow girls to inherit.
Though it was not known to what extent legal restrictions have affected land
transfer mechanisms (like rental, swapping, sharecropping, mortgaging,
sales, etc.) it was claimed in the literature that the 1975 land reform has
significantly restricted land transfers.
however important to note that those legal restrictions of governments have
not been effective enough in restricting land transfers. Sharecropping,
fixed rentals, and limited mortgage and sales have continued being important
means of access to land and efficient resource allocation even under the
Derg’s prohibitive policy.
empirical micro-level studies conducted after the Derg also suggest that
many of those land transfer mechanisms were functioning “informally” and
sharecropping is the commonest type ( For the review of literature see,
Yigremew 2001). Specific case studies in farming communities show that up
to 65% of sample farming households participate in land transactions and up
to one-fourth of plots are cultivated under such arrangements.
However, it does not seem that women benefit much from such land markets.
First, it is found that land transfers from poor to better-off farmers.
Women landholders are in general found renting out their small holdings.
Moreover, those women complain that their sharecropped out lands were not
ploughed properly and had could not be much important sources of livelihood
Land access through community membership.
It was mentioned
above that access to land via membership in communities that have control
over resources remains very important particularly in Africa. In Ethiopia,
this could be the case in terms of access to community grazing and other
communal lands both in crop production, agro-pastoralist and pastoralist
areas. In such cases, land is accessed by way of community membership and
through the community governance structures. This is again a grey area
where no enough empirical studies have been conducted. Few studies
conducted in such areas (Ayalew 2001, Yigremew 1997, 2003, Getachew 1999)
indicate that there are problems in resource administration and use in such
areas. One important concern is that such community institutions that
govern access to land are being weakened for different reasons.
Moreover, a very loose legal definition of rights in such resources has made
them somewhat an open access without proper legal ownership. In many cases
they are viewed as either no-man's-land or government possessions. Lands
identified as vacant and to be used for investment are largely those
belonging to communities who largely depend on such resources. In some
casers, small grazing lands amidst farm plots deliberately allocated for
grazing by villagers are given for investors without any compensation and
will of the communities. This has sometimes encouraged peasants to encroach
such communal areas and change them to private farm plots.
is what is happening to communal lands and lands of pastoralists in many
places. Moreover, there are conflicts over such resources leading to loss
of secondary or primary rights of the weaker party. Therefore, it is
important to study the dynamism of this access mechanism in order to
understand how it affects access to resources particularly by those
disadvantaged groups of the society in general and rural women in
government-sponsored large-scale planned as well as self-initiated
spontaneous resettlements have been practiced as a means of having better
access to land. While there are attention and studies on the
state-sponsored large-scale resettlements, the spontaneous movements of
people seem to be neglected in general. Government-sponsored resettlement
has always been a controversial issue in this country (see, Dessalegn
2003). At present, resettlement has been considered one important policy
option in terms of food security in particular.
in one way or another, resettlement has long been one mechanism of access to
land by those needy people including urban ones. For instance, despite the
legal restrictions and political risks of inter-regional resettlement after
the Derg, people have been moving from region to region in search of land
for livelihoods. But, given the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, it
seems that no enough studies have been conducted on the subject. Given the
level of importance resettlement has been given by the government
particularly in terms of food security, what happens to those resettlers and
people in the host areas in terms of their adequate and secure access to
land is an important research area. The situation of women in the
resettlement process will be an interesting subject for investigation.
Disadvantages of Rural
Access problems in general
Although largely mitigated by the 1975 reform, access
problems have not been settled in the long run. Total landlessness,
small holdings, and inequity could be taken as among indicators of land
access problems at present. It has been mentioned that there are many
landless peasants currently. In some communities such landless people reach
up to some 50% of the total households in the area. Rural women and young
people are also indicated as the most disadvantaged groups in terms of
access to land.
In addition, there are many in a situation of having very
minuscule holdings (near landlessness). Diminution of holdings to the
extent that they could not enable households feed themselves is another
problem. As it could be observed from CSA national reports landholdings are
ever diminishing. For instance the CSA (2000) agricultural sample survey
report shows that 40.61% of farming households have 0.5 or less hectares
of farmland and 64.47 % possess 1.0 or less hectares of land. The average
national farm holdings are estimated less than one hectare while the minimum
size even for subsistence is suggested well above that. It could be noted
that under the existing level of farm productivity, all these households
could not produce sufficient food to their own families could be understood
as a serious problem of access to land. Rural female-headed households
are found generally having smaller holdings and hence more affected by the
existing landholding system.
Inequity in holding distribution is also part of the land
access problem. Although increasing demographic pressure is commonly
mentioned as one of the causes of the problem of landlessness and smaller
holdings, it is also observable that there is some degree of inequity in
landholding across regions and localities. For instance CSA (2000) survey
shows that 64% of the total households cultivate only 27% of the total land
under cultivation or 73% of the total cultivated land is possessed by only
36% of households. Moreover, amidst 1 hectare household average holdings
for the country as a whole there are few households having 10 or more
hectares of land. In those areas where there were no many land
redistributions or other forms of active land transfer mechanisms in the
past, there is a kind of skewed landholding pattern that might have
contributed to the problem of growing landlessness. Interestingly, area
specific studies show that landlessness is more acute in such areas of
higher average holdings but with less instances of land transfers (for
specific case studies, see Yigremew 2004). This shows that the
administrative reallocation system could not meet equity requirements to the
level by which the rural land policies were justified by governments. It is
also expected that rural women are more affected in such system of land
important to note that data on women’s situations are not readily available.
It is known that there is lack of sex-disaggregated data to show women's
economic situations in the country. The case of rural women in terms of
access to productive resources has not been studied to the extent that it
available are also more on female-headed households than women in general.
This may partly be because the household has been the main unit of analysis
in the socio-economic studies of rural Ethiopia. But it is believed that a
household as a unit may not properly show, because of intra-household
relations, the real situation of individual women (see Zenebework and Yared
2000). Moreover, surveys target households and the situation of women and
girls within a household is not studied adequately.
Some studies and government documents show
that rural women in general and female-headed households in particular have
less access to and less control over land and other productive resources.
Review of literature (see Yigremew, 2001) shows evidence from case studies.
Here are some instances: Aspen’s (1993) study in North Shewa showed that,
regardless of their smaller proportion, female-headed households accounted
for 50 percent of the total landless peasant households. Another study
conducted in Ada wereda, central Ethiopia, shows that the average farm size
of male and female-headed households was 2.35 and 1.6 hectares respectively
(Etenesh, 1999). Dejene’s (1994) findings in his study in east and west
Shewa shows that among 1,415 rural households where 22 % were women, mean
size of holdings was 0.7 and 0.55 hectares for male and female-headed
households respectively. In South Wello, in two communities it was found
that 51.7 % of female-headed households had holdings of 0.25 to 0.5 hectares
while only 10% of male-headed households had this size of holdings. But, in
the larger holding category of 1.0 to1.25 hectare, the proportion was 5 %
and 30 % for female and male-headed households, respectively (Ali, 2000). A
World Bank (1998) study mentions that in the Amhara Region while 80 % of the
female heads of household had less than 2 hectares of land and 5 % had
between 2 and 4 hectares, 57 percent of men had less than 2 hectares and 31%
had between 2 and 4 hectares. Fafchamps and Quisumbing (2000) studying
households (1027 households- 935 male, 92 female) in different regions
regarding their possession of land with full use rights found that
female-headed households possessed nearly half of the holdings of
for such disadvantages
experienced by rural women in the past in terms of access to land are varied
and complex (Yigremew 2001). These include, among others, the gender
division of labour, patriarchal systems working against women, limited
membership in local institutions, smaller size of women’s households, gender
biases of local officials, and lack of access to other critical resources
Somewhat patriarchal system existing in the country is
mentioned as creating problem to women in terms of access to land. In
general land is allocated to the family jointly but, at least in the past
(and it seems that now some regional land laws have provided registration of
the names of both the husband and the wife), land was registered in the name
of the household head. But men are household heads in a household of married
couples. The common practice of household residential location is also a
patrilocal system where wives go to the residential areas of their husbands.
But, land policies still now dictate that access to land depends on one’s
This situation has many implications for women’s access to
land. First, the fact that land is registered in the name of the husband
and not the wife weakens women’s claim in general and in the case of divorce
in particular. Second, as access to rural land by peasants depends on one’s
residence in a given territorial jurisdiction (kebele), women forfeit their
chances of having access to land whenever they go to their husbands’
locations or leave their previous residence after they divorce or become
A study of Ethiopian rural households by Fafchamps and
Quisumbing (2000) on control and ownership of assets revealed interesting
dimensions of asset holdings at the different cycles of the development of
the household. Analysis of a sample of 1406 households from different
regions (the majority of the sample were from Tigray, Amhara, Oromiya, and
South) shows that women are in a lower economic position even at the
beginning of household formation, which affects their claims at the time of
divorce and, hence, for the rest of their lives as heads of households.
In the views of the researchers, the
effects of such lower economic position of women in terms of asset
possession was reflected in what happens to the disposition of the household
assets upon divorce. It could be observed that divorced women in polygamous
households were in a more disadvantageous position. Even in monogamous
households, the husbands are expected to take the lion’s share of the land
despite being at fault in causing divorces. The table below reveals opinions
of married couples regarding each one’s share of land at divorce.
Expectations of currently married couples
regarding dispositions of land upon divorce
Conditions of divorce and types of couples
a) Disposition upon no-fault divorce
b) Disposition upon fault-based
at fault (257 observations)
Source: Figures taken from Fafchamps and Quisumbing (2000).
In addition, in many cases as girls are expected to go to
their husbands’ residence, unlike sons, daughters usually miss out from the
allocation of land by the family as well. In general, young women, divorced
women and even sometimes widowed women without children are considered as
transients and not permanent dwellers of a given area as a result of which
they are not given due attention in land allocation. In many cases,
particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the country, customary
laws suggest that boys are given primary rights of inheritance while girls
in general have secondary inheritance rights. Still in polygamous
communities, women have practical problems of land access in the system of
allocating land to a family and not to an individual. Here again there are
cases where women whose husbands have died are inherited and become part of
the families of their deceased husbands.
Ownership of other resources, such as labour and oxen, was
also found as a necessary condition for one’s claims to have access to
land, to be recognised by officials, and even by family members themselves.
It is known that female headed households, in general are found having less
access to resources such as oxen and labour. As these are critical assets
in farming communities in Ethiopia, women without such critical resources
are considered, at best as “weak farmers,” and often as “non-farmers,” which
has resulted in marginalizing women when it comes to community land
distribution efforts (Frank, 1999, as quoted in Yigremew 2001).
Another disadvantage of rural women occurs for the reason
that they had limited membership and power in the local administrations that
administer land. Since 1975 and now land policies in Ethiopia have
stipulated that access to rural land depends on one’s residence within the
territorial jurisdiction of a given peasant association/kebele
administration as well as membership in such association. In practice, the
head of a household was registered as a member representing the household.
In such a situation, women become members of peasant associations in their
own names only when they become heads of households. As a result the
participation of women in membership and leadership of rural kebeles was
weak and this has affected their claim to land.
Given the agrarian and subsistence economy of Ethiopia,
access to land is an important component of rural livelihoods. Access to
land is also significant in the existing agricultural-led development and
poverty reduction strategy of the government. It does not seem, although
claimed by the government, that there is plenty idle land and a situation
that enables to effectively utilize it.
In rural areas women continue to have less access to and
control over land and other resources. It seems that many of the
above-mentioned land access mechanisms are not favourable to poor rural
women. There are new initiatives in terms of rural land administration.
Land certification is underway. It is very important to follow up what
happens to women’s access to land in the new system of land administration.
Administrative allocations are condemned and do not seem to play important
roles hereafter. Traditional intra-household land transfer mechanisms were
not that favourable to women and it is not known how they will be affected
by the new land certification practice. It is well known somewhere else
and even in Ethiopia that, unless otherwise specific measures are taken,
poor farmers in general and poor women in particular are not real
beneficiaries of enhanced land markets. We have very poor rural services
including credit and land markets function regressively- land being
accumulated in the hands of better-off farmers. Women are also losers in
the scramble for communal resources and it is important to follow up the
impact of such demise of communal resource management system taking place in
the country on rural women.
It is extremely important to study how all those rural land
access mechanisms and the newly initiated rural land administration systems
affect women and female-headed households’ access to and control over land.
For instance, Zenebework and Yared’s (2000) review
of literature on women’s land rights indicated that there are many factors
that have to be addressed if women are to fully enjoy their land rights: the
existing inheritance laws (more broadly a family law), women’s literacy
including legal literacy ( that is women’s knowledge of their legal
rights), the social legitimacy of women’s claims (that is whether the claim
is considered a valid one in the community of which the women’s household is
a part), women’s access to government officials who administer land related
matters, women’s access to economic and social resources, and women’s
ability to organize and form coalition with other gender progressive groups.
Generally, it could be recommended that serious measures should be taken to
address the issues of rural women’s access to land if any meaningful poverty
reduction is to take place in the country.
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