Gender equality and women empowerment are inter-connected developmental terms, seemingly cross-cutting that it is almost difficult to approach one without thinking of the other. As empowerment can be social, economic and political, defining the term has taken many shapes and forms, but there is no one definitive model of empowerment. Malhotra, et al. (2002) in preparing a background paper for the World Bank, offers that in the context of the bank’s poverty alleviation operations, empowerment in its broadest sense is “the expansion of freedom of choice and action. It means increasing one’s authority and control over the resources and decisions that affect one’s life.” Equality, on the other hand, carries aspects that are both quantitative and qualitative. Its qualitative aspect is aptly described by the UN (2001) to involve “ensuring that the perceptions, interests, needs and priorities of women and men will be given equal weight in planning and decision-making.”


A contextual understanding of these two concepts have been pervasive because the disenfranchisement or marginalization of women is a concern that states and developmental actors, including civil society organizations, are keen to address to achieve inclusive development. These are pervasive developmental concepts that weave the fabric of women’s social and economic inclusion. The World Bank (2013) categorically speaks of social inclusion as “central to ending extreme poverty and fostering shared prosperity”, and “is both an outcome and a process of improving the terms on which people take part in society.” Economic inclusion, on the other hand, is broadly defined by FDIC (2014) as a “term used to describe a variety of public and private efforts aimed at bringing underserved consumers into the financial mainstream”.

1.0  The Marginalization of Women in Africa

Majority of women in Africa depend on land for their livelihoods. Women constitute the majority of smallholder farmers, providing most of the labour and managing a large part of the farming activities on a daily basis (OECD, 2016; RISD, 2014), but women have limited or no rights over control of land. Figures on women’s participation in food production are also alarming, although figures remain contested for lack of comprehensive statistics— the numbers often mentioned range between 60% to 80% of food production being accounted for by women (OECD, 2016; Rosen & Shapouri, 2012; Kimani, 2012; Mehra & Rojas, 2008), and women own only 1% of land (Garvelink, 2012).

Experience in African countries with legal framework on women’s land rights point to a common agreement that the desired outcomes of women’s land rights are not fully achieved yet. Women have been pervasively denied secure access to land. Odeny (2013) keenly observed that women will need deliberate land administration policies and processes that ensure a gender-equitable land tenure system that will enable women to take part in both family and community land related decision-making processes. More recently, debates on women’s land rights in Africa revolve around understanding the barriers that prevent women’s access to, control over and use of land. The identified barriers include:

  • Inadequate legal standards and/or ineffective implementation of standards and policies at national and local levels (UN, 2013). Gaps in implementation and enforcement of gender-sensitive land policies marginalized women, especially that most women remain unaware of the existing legal frameworks;
  • Low levels of education of rural women. Where efforts have been made to design legal frameworks concurrent with gender equality in land rights, the low level of education of rural women posits another barrier. With low education, women are not able to understand the highly technical legal terms used in land-related legal frameworks (Odeny, 2013); and
  • Discriminatory cultural attitudes and practices that are built on highly patriarchal structures (UN, 2013).

There is general consensus in literatures that improving women’s access and control of land is vital for achieving food security and economic development. Preventing women’s rights on land would exacerbate their poverty and deepen gender inequality. For instance, studies conducted in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Nancy et al., 2015; Quisumbing, et al., 2010) stressed the need to consider gender dynamics related to individual and household assets when designing, implementing, and evaluating agricultural development projects and programs. This is because the use, control, and ownership of assets affect who within the household can participate in agricultural development projects, and how household members benefit from participation. In both ways, secure rights to land for women help moderate the impact of food price volatility and other shocks on poor households (Landesa, 2012). When women have control over land, agricultural production increases thus improving food security and benefitting communities as a whole (FAO, 2011). In developing countries, FAO observed that this would invariably increase women’s production by 20% to 30%, which would effectually reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 % (i.e., about 100 to 150 million people).

Securing women’s land rights will also create greater incentive to make productivity-enhancing investments because women will have greater confidence that they can recoup their investments over the medium and long term (Landesa, 2012; Garvelink, 2012). For smallholders, it also means collateral for agricultural inputs, improvements, innovations, and expansion of their enterprises and improved opportunities for families to access financial services, and sometimes are prerequisites to access government programs and assistance (Garvelink, 2012).

Evidence from African studies shows that the existing gender inequality in access to and control over land and natural resources is an obstacle to the sustainable management of natural resources and socio-economic development. Land is one of the cornerstones of economic development on which farmers, pastoralists and other communities base their livelihoods. Therefore, efforts need to be made by policymakers to enhance equal rights over access and control of land by both women and men because, being able to access, control, and own productive assets such as land, labour, finance, and social capital enable women to potentially participate in productive life. Such land-related policies concurrent with women empowerment would have a direct impact on the family livelihood.

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