Women’s rights must include land rights

The United Nations has declared that women’s land rights are a human right. The UN Women’s publication, Realising Women’s Rights to Land and Other Productive Resources, emphasises the “need to move the discussion on land towards a human rights-based perspective, with a stress on gender equality”.

But much of the debate in South Africa about land has taken place without women’s voices and their advocacy.

Women around the world tell a similar tale of tilling the land and producing food but being denied secure rights to land, including equal rights to inheritance, according to UN Women.

Nomaswazi Ngubane is a South African woman who has told such a story. She made submissions on the Traditional Courts Bill a few years ago and voiced her resistance to the state’s attempts to advance the secured land rights held by men. She demanded that the Bill be scrapped and highlighted the level of patriarchy that thrives in the rural areas. She described how the Bill would negatively affect rural women’s land, property and inheritance rights.

For instance, Ngubane recalled being forcibly evicted from her marital home after her marriage had broken down. She said this was common in rural areas. Furthermore, women who were single, widowed or divorced, or those without sons, could not be allocated land in accordance with customary law.


A woman also had no standing, even if she was married. Women were minors, Ngubane said, and had to be represented by male relatives to be considered for any allocation of land administered by traditional leaders. The general practice was for traditional leaders to allocate land to married men as household heads, she said. Therefore, there was no need to consult women or wives about decisions regarding land use or transactions.

The problems in Ngubane’s submission are very similar to those highlighted by the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, led by Kgalema Motlanthe, which found that the Ingonyama Trust in KwaZulu-Natal ought to be dissolved and the Ingonyama Trust Act repealed.

Reading Ngubane’s submission is a reminder of the recent furore over the Ingonyama Trust, which highlighted the abrogation of land rights, something our president has ignored in his bid to appease Zulu monarch Goodwill Zwelithini.

In brief, the panel’s report found that “rural women’s existences are determined by unequal power relations, in which context women have very little power with which to negotiate their physical, social and material security”.

According to the panel’s report and Ngubane’s submission, women are often excluded from traditional institutions such as traditional and village council meetings at which key decisions about land rights are taken. Even if they were included, they would still face injustice because traditional courts that decide land disputes are usually dominated by men and favour them.

What we also know is that women’s already abrogated land rights are made even worse by the land tenure disaster. There can be no successful land expropriation and redistribution without secured land tenure rights for people. Nathaniah Jacobs, writing in the Mail & Guardian, “Rectifying women’s land title rights”, highlighted the disastrous effects that can result because women don’t have secure tenure rights. “Grandmothers had to be listed as the household dependents of barely adult grandsons, and female-headed households wishing to remain in their homes were obliged to register distant male relatives as household heads, and thus [become] holders of tenure to their own homes.”

Ngubane also feared that the feminisation of poverty as a result of landlessness would increase.

Interestingly, much of this was highlighted in UN Women’s report. At the very least, the UN report suggests that, although women’s rights to land may be “directly linked to global food security and sustainable development”, secure land rights may also “address gender-specific problems”, such as “protection against violence and HIV”.

The report found that women are often compelled to remain in violent relationships as a result of poverty, whereas, if they had secure land rights, they would be more independent and enjoy power in their families and communities, as well as in their economic and political relationships.

The report recommends that policymakers should take the necessary steps to protect women by challenging discriminatory laws and abolishing customary norms that go against human rights.

I agree with this.

Palesa Lebitse is a liberal feminist who regularly writes for the M&G

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Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse
Palesa Lebitse is a liberal feminist who regularly writes for the M&G.

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