Women in Tanzania are in the midst of a historic struggle. They demand land ownership.
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While it’s legal for women to own land, only 20% of women do. It’s common for a woman to access land through a husband, father or brother. If the provider dies, the woman and her children risk being turned off their property by other relatives, or by governmental or corporate interests collecting land for agricultural development.
Traditional cultural attitudes, bureaucratic mismanagement, corporate corruption, and lack of sufficient rural education pose obstacles to women's ability to own land or defend their ownership to competing interests.
It’s common for land ownership to not be documented. This can make it hard for women (or rural farmers) to defend their property rights. Recently, USAID launched a pilot project to map geographic and demographic data using mobile phone technology. The program aims to help Tanzania’s authorities secure village land rights and speed up land rights registration. It remains to be seen it the program's initial successes can be applied throughout Tanzania. (1)
Owning land is a critical step in securing stable homes and business. Land ownership enables Tanzanian women can control what their farms grow and invest in modern farming methods.
Tanzanian farmers with small plots of land are threatened by large agricultural corporations. Local farmers are often uneducated about their land rights and are often unable to get bank loans to support their farms. Tanzanian women demand that laws be more protective of small farmers. They also want more land rights education and citizen participation so that small farmers can give "informed consent" when major corporations want to use their land.
The push for equitable application of land and inheritance laws is largely the result of two related forces:
1) the steady increase in adult education and women’s literacy and
2) women’s gradual economic empowerment.
Due to changing economic pressures, and increased access to education, more and more women are starting businesses. They have a stabilizing effect on their local economy by providing employment, selling to residents and buying from local vendors. Women who contribute to, or fully provide, the family's income have more power at home and are more likely to assert their political rights.
In Tanzania, inheritance laws and land use rights are especially contested. There are a number of discriminatory laws that prevent women from inheriting or owning property, and general ignorance of how to best make use of existing property laws. In the past few years, Tanzanian women have been agitating to change discriminatory laws and increase women's education of existing laws. When women are able to control their land, they are better able to feed their families and run a sustainable business. Educating women on land rights often has the effect of educating the whole community, as men and women will grapple with this threat to tradition and the potential for economic advancement.
These shifting attitudes on inheritance and property also enable defense for land use changes. In Tanzania, like much of East Africa, agriculture is king. Agriculture makes up a significant chunk of rural and national employment, and a significant chunk of the land used. Yet many of the farms are run by "smallholders", single families who use hand and animal labor to farm small amounts of land. It's very inefficient, but most of these farmers are too poor to buy modern equipment.
The Tanzanian government is faced with the difficult task of making the agricultural industry as efficient as possible. Their growing populations and fragile economy require it. But issues like corruption, poorly documented ownership, illiterate farmers, negative bias against herding communities, and speculative land grabs have made a fair redistribution of farming land almost impossible. Whole communities are sometimes forced off their land and under-compensated.
Yet communities that are educated on their civil rights and property rights can assert their rights.
If Tanzanian women succeed in securing their true property rights, they’ll have taken a major step toward alleviating poverty and social inequities in their communities.