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Forum for Social Studies


Yigremew Adal 


August 2005

Addis Ababa


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 total households. 

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.  

Among those 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.


The 1995 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[1] 

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. 

Intra-family transfers 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).   

Though formalization 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.   

Given legal 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 rural poverty. 

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). 

Administrative redistribution. 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 off-farm activities. 

Inheritance and 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.   

Land markets. 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. 

It is 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.   

Some 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 (Yigremew 1999).   

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. 

This 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 particular.


Resettlement. Both 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.


Done 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 Women 

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 access.  

Rural Women’s Situations[2]  

It is 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 deserves. Studies 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 male-headed households.   

The reasons 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 and services.  

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 residential area. 

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 widow.   

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



Divided half/half

a) Disposition upon no-fault divorce




Monogamous couples




Polygamous couples




b) Disposition upon fault-based




Husband at fault                                        




Wife 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.    

Concluding remarks  

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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Aspen, Harald, 1993, Competition and Cooperation: North Ethiopian Peasant Households and Their Resource Base.  Working Paper No. 7. Trondheim, Center for Environment and Development.

Ayalew Gebre, 2001,  Pastoralism Under Pressure. Land Alienation and pastoral transformations among the Karrayu of Eastern Ethiopia, 1941 to present.  Shaker Publishing.  Maastricht.

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Etenesh Bekele, 1999,  Institutional Factors Maintaining the Gender-Gap in Entitlements to Rural Resources.  Paper Presented at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Agricultural Economics Society of Ethiopia,  Addis Ababa,  October.

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Federal Democratic Republic Of Ethiopia 1997,   Proclamation No. 89/1997, Federal Rural Land Administration Proclamation.  Addis Ababa: Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise.

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Yigremew Adal, 2000, Rural land tenure under the Derg: Revisiting some issues.  Institute of Development Research.  Draft. 

Yigremew Adal,  1999,  “The Rural Land Tenure System in Ethiopia Since 1975: Some Observations   About its Impact on Agricultural Production and Sustainable Land Use.”  Tegegne et al.  pp. 205-225.

Yigremew Adal,  1997,  “Rural Land Holding Readjustment in West Gojjam, Amhara Region.”  Ethiopian Journal of Development Research, Vol. 19:2. pp. 57 - 89.

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[1] Discussions on access mechanisms are based on Yigremew (2004).

[2] This part is drawn mainly from Yigremew (2001).


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