The importance of secure property rights for women

In the midst of August, Women's Month, it is important to assess how broader political conversations will affect women broadly in South Africa.

How can we possibly deal with some of the gender inequities which persist in our society and which are at times engineered to persist through cultural mores, a lack of opportunity of girls specifically, and the inequitable access to land and resources for women? These issues are important to look at not only from a perspective of justice, but also from a deeply pragmatic and economic perspective, as making sure women are meaningful participants in our economy will benefit everyone.

In South Africa, many women do not have ownership rights to the land on which they live and work, because they are dependent on spouses and land ownership patterns through relatives due to customary law. The formal rights enshrined in a plethora of legislation have not translated into substantive property rights for them. 

Women have high participation rates when it comes to food production, especially around subsistence farming and yet, because of skewed ownership patterns, there remains little correlation between the work women put in and what they reap in terms of reward. There isn't as much clarity on how land ownership is regulated by customary law or land tenureship systems. This, coupled with discriminatory attitudes and power structures in both communities and households, has left women vulnerable and at the whims of powerful male figures and traditional leaders. This is deeply unjust.

According to a 2013 International Food Policy Research Institute discussion paper, when women have secure land rights they have greater control of decision-making. This means they decide what crops to grow, what technology to use and what to consume or sell. This is important to note, because when women have these choices, a USAID brief outlined that it leads to better developmental outcomes in terms of child nutrition, improved educational attainment for girls and greater decision-making power within the household.

These developmental outcomes are especially critical, considering the food security challenges and stunting that many poor and rural children face, and how improved educational attainment for girls is a vital cog in growing our country’s economy and delivering a better life for all South Africans
It is clear, at least from a policy perspective, that the government has long understood the need to centre women's rights when implementing land reform programmes. The 1997 White Paper on Land Policy placed considerable emphasis on gender equity in land access and effective participation of women in decision-making processes. The paper concedes that "a key contributing factor to women's inability to overcome poverty is lack of access to and rights in land". The paper also points out that legal restrictions impede women's access to land and the financial services to develop it, and that gender-neutral land reform policies have a negative effect on gender equality.

The Department of Land Affairs' 1999 gender policy framework states that "because women have much less power and authority than men", and "much more attention should be directed to meeting women's needs and concerns". Unless this is done, existing gender inequities in the allocation of land and its productive use could be exacerbated by the land reform programme. In September 1999, the National Land Committee (NLC) estimated that only 7,331 of the 50,152 beneficiary households that participated in the land redistribution programme were female-headed households. In 2000, the NLC estimated that female-headed households represented only 14% of the households to whom land had been transferred under the redistribution programme.

This is another important point to consider. There are many female-headed households in rural areas, partly as a hangover from the Apartheid migrant labour system, where many rural men sought work in bigger towns and cities so they could send back money home. Because of our high unemployment rates and sometimes an economic climate in which the only work available to these men are piecemeal jobs, many women are left with the responsibility to fend for themselves and their children. This they do without having the tools (access to land and the finances to develop it), facing discrimination, and a lack of tenure even if they do get a piece of land to farm. This should concern everyone who not only believes in the advancement of women's rights but those of us who believe that entrenching secure property rights and the rule of law in all South Africa will lead to growth and our country prospering.

It is essential to not just be against expropriation without compensation but to also offer detailed and well-thought-out policy about how secure property rights will help especially vulnerable women and ensure a better future for them and their children.

This article was first published on City Press on 13 August 2020
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