Celebrating the International Day of Rural Women, 15 October 2020
“Women belong in all spaces where decisions are being made”. A famous quote made even more famous by the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has garnered a fair share of attention recently, making women around the world reflect on how far we’ve come in gender equality and women’s rights.
Yet in many parts of the world, cultural and traditional norms prevent women from participating in the same spaces as men, where important decisions are being made regarding their fundamental rights and future.
One of these rights include the right to own, use and make decisions on their land in equal terms with men. Despite the fact that 164 countries legally recognise this globally, only 52 countries guarantee these rights in practice because of discriminatory customary and traditional laws.
Rural women suffer disproportionately from this reality, as they are most likely to live in communities where oppressive customary norms, traditions and cultural practices reign.
Making up a quarter of the world’s population, rural women feed their families, communities and beyond, yet the reality is, they’re growing food on somebody else’s land.
Just ask Felia Sikubweza, a farmer from the Dowa District in the Central Region of Malawi. Felia’s story is not that different from many rural women in Malawi, one of the poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa. She grew up on a farm with her parents, growing pigeon peas, soya beans, tomatoes and maize for consumption and to sell in the local market. She was forced to forego an education to run the family’s farm while taking care of her mother who suffered from a disability.
This heavy responsibility spilled into adulthood, where Felia found herself supporting her husband through college to pursue his career ambitions, while ensuring nutritious meals for her four young children. Felia found herself barely surviving in a marriage with a husband who was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, with little hope for a way out.
“He took advantage of the fact that I was uneducated and that my then small business could not provide for me and our children as his employment could”, Felia admits.
It was only until she found the support of a community of like-minded women in the Coalition of Women Farmers in Malawi (COWFA) where she learned about her rights and had the courage to leave her situation. These women found strength in numbers to approach traditional leaders and demand change, because their lives depended on it.
It is not uncommon for women in Felia’s community to be subjected to gender-based violence as a form of intimidation to discourage the pursuit of justice, or to be asked to pay exorbitant fees to have their cases heard. The stark reality is that women who own land are up to 8 times less likely to experience domestic violence.
We’ve all heard and read the statistics, women make up more than 60% of the agricultural labour force and contribute between 60-80% of the food production. Yet despite being the majority food producers, women own less than 15% of the world’s land, with men controlling the family’s income generation and resource allocation.
The situation in Malawi is even more dire, as it is estimated that only 4% of agricultural land is registered to women.
“Once I left my husband, my brothers were reluctant to give me a portion of the family land as my culture dictates that a woman relinquishes all rights to land in her parental home once married. I had no other choice but to be brave and seek assistance from local leaders and chiefs in negotiating for a piece of land from my family. I wouldn’t have had this courage unless I knew my rights”.
Yet it seems change is in the air and progress imminent with the passing of 10 progressive land laws in Malawi. Among the most significant of these legislative changes is the 2016 Customary Land Act, which incorporates a gender‑sensitive lens, requiring that women have a 50% representation in customary land committees. These committees are responsible for the management of all customary land in a traditionally-managed area, so having a seat at this table is a huge step in the right direction.
This could not have been done without ILC member LandNet Malawi and the collaborations that transpired, including with Oxfam, in the setting up of the NES Civil Society Land Governance Platform in 2013. The platform works at both district and national levels and has even engaged in technical groups responsible for the review and drafting of the new laws.
NES Malawi brings together 37 members representing a wide spectrum of actors and has worked especially close with traditional leaders through sensitisation workshops, as their involvement is crucial in order to overcome harmful customary norms. NES has also worked closely with women’s groups, including COWFA, to include them in proposed amendments to the law and to train them in the instance they are called into decision making spaces.
Today, Felia is an active member of NES Malawi and is often called into traditional courts and district dispute resolution meetings to consult on land cases because of the vast knowledge she has acquired. Chiefs even engage her and the other participants to advocate for other women during dispute resolution cases on land if they feel that the victims cannot represent themselves.
For Kate Chibwana, NES Malawi’s Facilitator, “being part of the NES has provided the women with information that has helped them value their land more than before, building their confidence to carry on their work due to the support that they have from a large network.”
Witnessing this progress first hand from her own community has given Felia hope for the future
“I believe that women will feel more secure about their land especially in the unfortunate events of divorce and death. Orphaned children will also be taken care of. I also foresee women making long-term investments on their land if they feel secure so they can improve their long term welfare.”
Felia’s story is a testament that guaranteeing land rights and control over valuable assets for women is a fundamental step towards halting gender-based violence, empowering women economically and promoting their agency and voice. It’s only through predictable, adequate and sustained investments that we can accelerate the implementation of progressive policies and laws, like the ones seen in Malawi, and ensure that rural women and girls have the possibility to claim their land and in turn, improved their daily lives.
THE ILC CONTRIBUTION SUMMARY FOR MALAWI 2020 - ENGLISH
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