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Strengthening women's customary rights to land

7 Mar 2017

The rolling hills of Burundi, or collines, represent the heart of its rural society. Burundi has a growing population and one of the highest population densities in Africa, yet 90% of its nine million inhabitants live in rural areas and many rely on subsistence farming for food. Women play an active role in the agricultural sector, which provides 90% of the country’s food production, according to statistics by UN Women.

The scarcity of land in Burundi poses serious problems as the population continues to grow. Food insecurity is high, with some 28% of people living with limited access to food. What’s more, as in many post-conflict countries in Africa, disputes over land can create security risks. 36% of cases involving violent crime relate to land disputes as per IDLO data in 2016, putting land at the crux of the livelihoods of Burundi’s citizens.

Land tenure registration (LTR) is an approach adopted by the Burundian government to reduce land disputes, stimulate agricultural investments and foster land productivity. Through registration the land ownership is formalized and recorded in a cadaster, or registry, and proof of ownership is given to rights holders. 

In 2014, the non-governmental organization Stichting ZOA, with the support of the Government of the Netherlands, began a land tenure registration program in the south of Burundi. Under this initiative, IDLO’s responsibility is to research the impact of the program on beneficiaries, as well as ways to strengthen women’s customary rights in the land registration process. 

Women’s rights to land

Registering women’s land rights is challenging in Burundi. Studies by IDLO have shown that while women were the main rights holders to nearly 25% of the land, only a small fraction of these rights were actually registered in a woman’s name.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that under customary law a woman’s rights to land will often be subject to a superior right of a male family member. In practice, because men’s rights often have superior status under customary law, only their rights make it onto the certificate.

Consequently, women’s rights grow weaker. A woman who under customary law has the right to cultivate a portion of her father’s land in case she is abandoned or widowed - a right called igiseke in Burundi - may find it harder to exercise her claim or defend herself in case her brother wishes to sell the land and argues that only his name appears on the certificate.

This is particularly problematic because these rights will often act as an insurance policy for women to protect them in times of hardship and destitution, such as a bad harvest, women who are abandoned or widowed, or whose husband falls ill.

These problems prompted IDLO, with support of its partner ZOA, to launch a pilot project in a small area of the south of the country. The pilot aimed to gain a better understanding of the obstacles standing in the way of registration of women’s land rights, identify strategies to overcome these obstacles, and test the effectiveness of these strategies in practice.

Overcoming obstacles to registering women’s land rights

A lack of awareness, among both the population and the key actors involved in the registration process, is one of the main obstacles preventing registration. Specifically, many citizens are unaware of the various options that exist within the broader legal framework to protect women’s land rights, including options that don’t change the nature of the rights vis-à-vis customary law. Additionally, there is a lack of awareness around the adverse consequences of not recording women’s land rights and the risks involved in registration for women.

To better protect women’s land rights, IDLO conducted a series of awareness-raising activities in Rurambira prior to land tenure registration among key actors, coupled with intensive training on gender approaches to LTR and capacity strengthening activities.

Open dialogues and discussions at the community level were conducted to discuss women’s land rights, the obstacles that stay in the way in their registration, and to deliberate on possible ways to overcome these obstacles. Both men and women participated in the debates, including local authorities, traditional leaders, religious leaders, and members of the general community.

As an outcome of this approach, consensus was reached on a number of issues. The community agreed that, in principle, a widow’s rights on her late husband’s land have to be registered as full property, and that the right of igiseke is worthy of protection in the form of either a full right of property or a dependent right mentioned on the father’s property title. And finally, views converged on the idea that as much as possible matrimonial property should be registered in co-ownership between husbands and wives. 

The positive impact on women

As a direct result of these dialogues in Rurambira, the recognition of women’s land rights during registration increased considerably, compared to other collines, where gender-specific awareness-raising activities had not been conducted.

Progress was particularly strong in terms of the recognition of the right of igiseke registered directly in a woman’s name, up from 2.56% to 12.35%, and the right of igiseke recognized as a derived right, where the woman cannot be evicted even if the owner should sell the property, up from 1.13% to 21.67%. Finally, widows’ rights to their deceased husband’s land increased from 32.21% to 62.50%. 

While the awareness or recognition of rights doesn’t inevitably guarantee the exercise of them, the results demonstrate that women’s land rights are better protected if awareness, dialogue and community consensus are promoted. 

The promising achievements in Rurambira give reason to pursue further work on women’s land rights and could help create momentum for dialogues on other gender equality issues in Burundi.

Presenting the results of the pilot project at a land rights conference in Bujumbura, IDLO’s Head of Research Marco Lankhorst noted, “The pilot project IDLO implemented shows that very substantial increases in the level of protection of women’s customary and statutory rights to land are possible. An intensive process of raising awareness about women’s rights and the risks they face in registration, followed by a series of community dialogues about the need and ways to avoid these risks, were essential in achieving these results. By relying on this approach, large scale dispossession of women can be avoided in future land registration programs in Burundi.”

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