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Securing women’s land rights, Gongoni Village, Tanzania

Hot tea, no milk, but a bit of ginger and other spice to add flavour, a large chapatti; this was my breakfast in the village of Gongoni on 4th March. I was sitting under a grass roof supported on a wobbly stick structure. The sun was up, but not yet burning hot. Colleagues I was with had tea or soup with a bit of meat. The chapattis came from a women sitting on the ground under the same rough shelter in a red shirt rolling the dough flat on a wooden block before cooking it with some oil on a curved metal plate on top of a charcoal stove to her side. Unusually the person who actually served us the tea and soup was a man; perhaps a good sign given our reason for being in the village.

Fatuma holds the certificate to her land.

We were here in Gongoni Village, Morogoro Region, Tanzania for an early International Women’s Day celebration. This celebration was focussed on a very real advance in women’s rights: the legal recognition of their land rights. With support from Oxfam, local partner organisation Women and Poverty Alleviation in Tanzania (WOPATA) has been working on land formalisation with the village. Previously there was no documented land demarcation or written record of who had rights to which land. This project has involved surveying and registering the land with a particular focus on ensuring that women’s rights to land are recognised and legally secured.

Hundreds of people came to witness the moment. There was music, speeches (not too long), dancers and the handover of Certificates of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) to some of the newly registered ‘owners’. The CCRO is the legal mechanism for people to secure their rights to land in rural Tanzania. This is a very secure right, not quite ‘ownership’, but the strongest a person can get in a village in Tanzania.

Nchambi and Sumbu. This couple registered their land jointly. The certificate has both of their names and pictures.

Men in Gongoni also received CCROs, but what is significant is that women have secured almost as much land as men, getting close to the aim of achieving gender equity. 382 people in the village have applied for CCROs and will be receiving them. These are made up of 184 (48%) women and 198 (52%) men. Discrimination against women in terms of land rights is widespread in Tanzania and many other countries where men are seen as the heads of households and the holders of the land. In some cases of land formalisation in Tanzania women have made up as little as 2% of those having their land rights registered. Gongoni is achieving something different.

“The leaders of Gongoni Village have allocated land equally to women and men. Congratulations!” said guest speaker, Professor Marjorie Mbilinyi. She also warned the villagers of other challenges, such as the lack of support for small farmers and the allocation of large amounts of land to big investors, leaving too little for the Tanzanian small producers. Addressing an important issue in Tanzania of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, she said all small producers, farmers and pastoralists, need to see that they have common challenges. They need to join together and advocate for the protection of their rights to land. “We need to remind the government that it is the small producers that this country depends on for food”.

The law is there in Tanzania to enable people to secure their land rights, but the government does not have the resources to survey and register land across the country. In this case village leaders and WOPATA, a non-government organisation, have done the work. Geographic Positioning System (GPS) equipment was bought and local people trained to use it and do the surveying. In each case the neighbours had to agree on the boundary, sometimes taking quite a bit discussion and walking around the piece of land. Now each certificate has a small map and the coordinates for the plot alongside pictures of the ‘owners’ of that plot.

Even when it seemed all the work was done, it was realised Oxfam would still need to find the money to buy the paper and ink to actually print people’s certificates. Printing in colour (needed for the pictures) on good quality paper, turns out to be quite expensive. Once printed it then took a long time to get the certificates signed by the relevant government official, some are still waiting for this and will be distributed later.

The project has not all been easy and succeeding as a small farmer, even when you ‘own’ your land is still a challenge, you still need the inputs, hard work and markets. But this was a day for celebrating an important step in the development process. A step that is especially significant for many women who work the land, but do not have rights and control over the land and therefore often do not control what happens to the harvest and the profit from that harvest.

“I am happy today, I am happy to get my certificate, because with the certificate to my land I will be free on my land. I will decide what I want to do”

Elizabeth and her husband Richard, in the rice fields that many villagers depend on.

said Elizabeth a mother of two. When I spoke to her husband Richard later he explained that they divided the land; he has his piece in his name and she has her piece in her name. The main reason he gave for this approach was that “anything can happen to me and we have a problem here; if I am gone many relatives will come and finish the inheritance, some widows are left with nothing. Now I know my wife will at least have her land.”

Fatuma, a mother of six, was less exuberant, but practical, “this will help with my responsibilities at home” she said after receiving the certificate to her land. “With my own land I will not be bothered by other people”.

Anna Oloshuro, a Female Food Hero Finalist in 2012 said that “Women, need rights to the land. Men are seen as owners of the land, but when they leave the family they leave the women with the children and no way to support them. Stand up women and claim your rights to land so you are able to take care of yourselves and your families!”

Hawa, a mother of six who was handed her certificate by Jane Foster, Oxfam Country Director in Tanzania, put it simple: “I am happy, very happy to get rights to my land, to get my rights”.

#IWD2015 #MakeItHappen

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Written by Marc Wegerif

Marc Wegerif

Marc Wegerif coordinates Oxfam's Economic Justice campaign in East Africa, working with partners to bring about fair policies for small farmers, pastoralists and communities affected by climate change. He is based in Tanzania

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