Investigating women's land rights.
The 40-page report: Protection for Women in Namibia's Communal Land Reform Act: Is it Working? by Wolfgang Werner is jointly published by the Land, Environment and Development Project and the Gender Advocacy and Research Project of the LAC. It investigates women's land rights in the four north-central regions of the country, namely Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto.
Customary land rights of widows in these regions appear to be much more secure now than at the time of Independence, thanks to the revision of some of the customary laws in the area combined with the impact of the Communal Land Reform Act.
More awareness needed
However, the report noted that the majority of customary land right holders appear to be unaware of their rights in terms of the Communal Land Reform Act, and hence cannot claim these rights. According to Werner, "awareness of the roles and functions of Communal Land Boards appears to be equally poor. For as long as land right holders are unaware of their rights, customary laws, particularly with regard to gender, are likely to take precedence over statutory law. To the extent that this happens, the social structures that relegate women to a subordinate position are likely to remain in place."
A major problem is that, despite their improved land tenure rights, widows remain vulnerable to losing important household and agricultural assets to relatives of their deceased husbands through the practice of "property-grabbing", which is justified by reference to matrilineal inheritance practices. "This practice leaves many widows without the means necessary to cultivate their land, and sometimes even without adequate shelter," Werner says.
The way forward
The study makes the following key recommendations:
* government and NGOs should work together on an information campaign to popularise the provisions of the Communal Land Reform Act, combined with community-based discussions of gender equity and the status of women
* local communities and Traditional Authorities should develop guidelines to prevent property grabbing, by means of a consultative process which will give new rules widespread legitimacy.
* where relatives of a deceased husband lay claim to household assets to the detriment of widows and their dependants, the claim should be negotiated in the presence of Traditional Leaders or a forum chosen by local communities
* government should provide more financial and technical support to Traditional Authorities and Communal Land Boards, to facilitate effective administration of the Communal Land Reform Act
* officials in the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement should be trained on gender issues
* the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry should review the extension and support services aimed at small-scale communal farmers, to ensure that women have full access to services such as seeds, fertilisers, credit and market access.
A redistribution of roles
The study noted that the redistribution of land or land rights will not be sufficient on their own to achieve gender equality; there must also be a redistribution of socio-economic roles and responsibilities between women and men.
"Land and property rights are not an end in themselves, but a means for a better livelihood for women and their families."