How not to search for women’s land rights in Africa

Saturday April 26 2014

Arguably, there is no other continent on the planet that has more at stake in the discussions to determine a post-2015 development agenda than Africa.

Africa is largely seen as having made the least progress toward the existing Millenium Development Goals, and much of the current discussion is focused on finding more meaningful, cross-cutting, impactful and fair goals and targets, and ways to measure them that are as relevant to Africa as they are to the rest of the globe.

As world leaders continue these discussions to shape the post-2015 development agenda, it is useful to step back and consider the parable of the drunkard and the streetlight.

The story is that one night, a police officer sees a drunk man searching under a streetlight and he asks what the man has lost. The man responds that he lost his keys and they proceed to search together.

After a few minutes, the police officer asks if the man is sure he lost them near the streetlight. The man responds, no, he lost his keys in the park, but he is searching near the streetlight because “that is where the light is.”

In our current dialogue regarding the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (set to expire in 2015), we have to guard against this “observational bias” — we need to carefully select the goals, targets, and indicators that best guide the fight against global poverty and inequality and best measure progress, rather than choosing goals, targets or indicators that are less meaningful but can be measured relatively easily.


Acknowledging that it is often extremely difficult to reliably measure what is really important—we must and can do better.

Take secure land rights for women and men for example. There is a growing chorus of voices — including governments, civil society, and other world leaders — calling for the issue to be explicitly included in the post-2015 development agenda because strengthening such rights, particularly for women, can help address multiple development goals.

Most recently, the Open Working Group co-chairs identified rights and access to land, property, and other assets and resources as a critical cross-cutting issue and priority concern under four focus areas — poverty eradication, gender equality, food security, and rule of law.

A target to increase and strengthen land rights for women and men under one or more goals in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)/post-2015 agenda will contribute mightily to other goals as well.

But to ensure that we are working towards precise and impactful goals and targets, we need to meaningfully measure progress.

Take women’s land rights in particular. An estimated 70 per cent of Africa’s farmers are women. The vast majority don’t formally own the land they farm. In fact, their rights over the land are disadvantaged by a web of statutory law, customary laws, norms, and traditions.

So how can we measure their rights to land?

One approach could simply look at the degree to which a country’s laws recognise women’s rights to own, control, and inherit land. Countries across Africa have implemented laws that formally assert equal rights for women to ownership of land and property – an important step in strengthening women’s land rights.

But the reality on the ground frequently tells a different story.

Consider the situation for Kenya’s women. The new Constitution provides women with unprecedented rights and protections.

But the overwhelming majority of rural Kenyan women don’t own land. In fact, only an estimated five per cent of women have land registered in their names.

And within Kenya’s customary lands, where land is not owned by individuals but rather held by extended families and clans, men generally control the land upon which women farm.

So, while measuring legal frameworks may be the easiest route to assessing secure land rights for women, it is also the most fraught with the potential for false positives, overstating the actual progress on the issue.

The existence of laws, policies and regulations protecting women’s rights does not mean that women can actually exercise those rights.

So, there is good reason to measure instead an element that better reflects whether women in fact have secure rights to land.

One way is to measure a key aspect of secure land rights — documented evidence of such rights. While not perfect, this measure would go a long way toward revealing whether women in fact are realising their rights on the ground.

But, what, exactly, should be measured? There is a profound difference between measuring the percentage of land titled to women versus measuring the percentage of women who have title or other documentation to land.

In Kenya, again, five per cent of women are recorded as landowners, as noted above. But a data point on the percentage of land owned by women could be skewed by the land holdings of the urban elite.

Furthermore, until the country adopts its pending new community land law, most of the land in Kenya will remain untitled and undocumented.

We need to ensure that current efforts to formulate a new path forward are not an exercise in futility that will leave us with a measure of the growing wealth of developing country elites or one that reflects theory rather than reality.

We need to guard against the natural inclination to search under the streetlight because it is easier.

To ensure that developing countries achieve gains in poverty eradication, gender equality, food security, rule of law, and environmental sustainability, we need to focus on our prior blind spots, shining a light in areas previously largely unmeasured — such as the percentage of women who have documentation of a range of rights to land — to ensure that growing numbers of women have real secure rights to land and other productive resources and a path out of poverty.

Tim Hanstad is CEO of Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men.; Twitter: @Landesa_Global.