Sub-Saharan African countries have introduced a ‘new wave’ of land reforms in the last couple of decades (read about the reforms in this review). Unlike previous, more state-centric reforms, these new reforms decentralise responsibility for the administration of land to the local level and streamline disparate land law regimes. For instance, customary tenure and fully individualised freehold tenure may get converged into a single, more formal tenure system. Typically, reforms also aim at protecting the land rights of women and vulnerable groups.
So far, evidence has been scarce and land reform debates have largely been based on findings from past reforms. Slowly, however, results start appearing. And they are more positive than what many scholars expected. Recently, I received a Working Paper, Environmental and Gender Impacts of Land Tenure Regularisation in Africa, which presents evidence from pilot implementation projects in Rwanda, which is to carry out a nation-wide land tenure regularisation program. Its outcomes were positive, though I do not think they herald a revolution.
The paper concludes that Legally married women were significantly more likely to have their informal ownership rights documented and secured after registration. But women who were not legally married saw diminished property rights, in accordance with the law (p. 14). It is important that the pilot project has improved most women’s access to land. Titling programmes effect on gender equality was an important criticism in the past. Old-fashioned land reforms typically registered land in the name of the household head – the husband – and reduced women’s control over land (read, for instance, this working paper p. 19).
The Rwandan findings are largely in line with my findings from implementation projects in Tanzania. But based on my research I would also emphasise that there are significant differences within the groups of married and unmarried women. Single women, I would say, may even be in better off than married women if they get registered as household heads. Women who get single due to divorce, on the other hand, may be worse off. Reform, in other words, polarises women’s positions.
Bottom-line is that new wave land reforms seem to improve most women’s access to land. It does not happen automatically, however. The authors of the working paper warn that ‘careful design based on local conditions, and continued monitoring during implementation’ are required. It is also my impression that the approach of implementers – whether they emphasise women’s rights to land during training sessions and implementation – is important.
Despite these significant findings, the working paper has a serious methodological weakness. It seems to me that the conclusion is based on changes in perceptions only. In other words, the researchers have been looking at whether more women are ‘entitled’ to equal ownership rights (p. 13). It does not tell us whether their actual ability to defend their rights if they have to, for instance in case of divorce. If you have more information about the Rwandan land reform and whether it has actually improved women’s tenure security it is most welcome.