Access to land rights for women in sub-Saharan countries has, for decades, faced a myriad of institutional, policy and traditional barriers. It is within this context that organisations and women rights activists like Susan Owiti, one of the co-founders of Kenya Peasants League, were borne. They are at the front lobbying for inclusion and equity in contestation to customary laws and practises that have perpetually impeded women’s access and ownership of land.
It is just another working day for Susan when I meet her at her office on a late Saturday afternoon. It is located in Kangemi, an informal settlement located in a small valley 11 km west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The 38 year old mother of four sits as the secretary general of The Women Collective. It is one of the 8 collectives of the Kenya Peasants League, a social movement of Kenyan farmers and consumers whose main goal is to promote peasantry and agro-ecology as a means to ensure food sovereignty. She is also a human rights defender, feminist and peasant farmer who has dedicated a significant part of her life to ferociously defend equal rights for women, especially those pertinent to land.
“In most rural areas of Kenya women are facing unimaginable barriers in relation to access to land,” she says. “On the rare occasion that they do, they can only use it but not own or control it.” Statistics affirms this for only a paltry 2% of land owners in Kenya are women. This has intensified poverty amongst women for without access to land, which is a primary factor of production, they are unable to advance and realise positive economic outcomes. In her advocacy she lobbies for the rights of the peasant woman, a woman who is mostly in the rural areas. She is oblivious of her rights with society treating her like a secondary citizen. The big bold writings on the t-shirt she has on says it all. ‘I am a peasant feminist.’
Her Building Point
Susan was born and raised in Nairobi although she hails from Siaya, a county in the western part of Kenya. The 6th born daughter in a family of 8 describes her childhood as one filled with hurdles and uncertainties of what tomorrow might bring. It got worse after the untimely death of her father when she was just 6 years old. “Securing three meals a day was quite a challenge for my mother who was now the head of the household,” she says. Going to school for her came with its own set of challenges. Back then in her home, as in most African homes at the time, boys were valued more than girls especially when it came to matters of education. “It was preferential for my brothers to further their education as compared to us, although I kept faith that I would see it through to the end.” Before the heap of soil on her father’s grave had even sunk into the ground, her paternal family began to covet the land her mother had inherited as the next of kin.
“It was hard for them to accept that my mother, a woman, was worthy of owning land. She was consistently discriminated against and constantly threatened in an attempt to have her cave in to their demands. Advocacy must certainly be inherent to her, for even at such a young age, she found herself challenging her uncles. This is because they constantly alienated her mother and other women within the family in decision making spaces in regard to land. “My upbringing has moulded me into the person I am today. Being raised in a society where my value as a woman was deemed inferior as compared to my brothers added on to my zeal to prove to the world that my gender doesn’t make me less of a person. It is such norms and cultures, which start that early with the denial of equal right to education for girls, which have contributed to the deplorable status of women especially in rural areas. These are the patterns that I seek to dismantle,” she says.
Impact of Inadequate Land on the Livelihood of Women
Despite Kenya having a progressive constitution and enacted laws that grant women equal rights to land as their male counterparts, men have over the years remained the custodians of land and hold responsibility of its use and control. The constitution in article 60 (f) states that land in Kenya shall be held in an equitable manner that eliminates any form of gender discrimination in law, customs and practises related to land and property in land. Subsequently, over the years Kenya has enacted laws like the Land Act of 2012, Land Registration Act 2012, National Land Commission Act 2012 and the Matrimonial Property Act 2013. This is to ensure equal access to land for women and to correct historical injustices against women in land acquisition and access. In spite of all these gains, access to land for women is still biased.
The impact of inadequate land on the livelihood of women has great impact not only on them but to their households as well. Her mother forms part of the 36.9% of households that are headed by women in Kenya. Her ability to defend her mother’s right to the land her father left her has enabled her to fend, raise and educate not only herself, but her siblings as well. However, unlike her mother, most widows do not get to keep their land which directly and greatly affects them and their children. “Land grabbing targeting widows is a rampant phenomenon,” she says. “Even the Matrimonial Property Act, which should provide a legal basis for land ownership claims by widows, is not all comprehensive. It locks out those not in legally recognized marriages which is the nature of most unions in rural areas, thus paving way for land grabbing.”
The Act of Parliament which was passed in 2013 provides for the rights and responsibilities of spouses in relation to matrimonial property and for connected purposes. She also highlights that land acquisition is still under male centred kinship. “In the constitution, the Law of Succession Act, cap 160 in the Kenyan constitution, gives both the male and female child the same inheritance rights. Unfortunately, this is not what is taking place on the ground because people are still inclined to patrilineal succession of land. Furthermore, lack of information awareness that such a law exists limits women from enforcing their rights.
Lack of Information Is a Barrier
Information is liberating and this is where she chose to start. “Through information, women in the rural areas who are oblivious of their rights are going to be more cognizant and informed on their constitutional right to own land and the ways to go about legally claiming their rights,” she says. Susan has been undertaking comprehensive work within the community to address gender discrimination against women owning land. By conducting inclusive community dialogue on women land rights, she hopes the knowledge garnered in these meetings will help change perspectives.
She decided to form The Women Collective of the Kenya Peasants League on the realisation that women voices were lacking within the movement, especially in spaces of land and food production dialogue. This is despite the fact that women play a very significant role in food production. The Women Collective educates the rural women on the markets, investments, good borrowing and their constitutional right to equal land ownership.
Lack of Financial Capital
A person’s ability to seek for financial resources is largely determined by the collateral they have. Consequently, this has locked women out of the traditional financial borrowing as they have limited access to land as a factor of production, neither do they own any to offer as collateral. “Women have had to turn to microcredit finance institutions. In my opinion, this has been by and large to their disadvantage. According to a recent study we conducted on the ‘Effect of Microcredits on a Peasant Woman’ it came to light that a majority of the rural women seeking out loans are oblivious of the interest rates that will be accrued. Just recently a woman committed suicide as a result of accumulated debt. The microcredit firms have fallen short when it comes to educating these women, most of whom are illiterate, before giving out loans. They have been taking advantage of their ignorance to coax and give them loans which attract very high interest rates,” she says.
To prevent this, she holds trainings in rural areas to educate and analyse loan terms for women seeking them. “This is a course I am hoping to expand,” she says. “The women we have impacted with our trainings were so happy. They confessed that they now make better financial decisions, hence being in much more control of their finances. They keep on asking when we shall go back,” she says with a smile. Unfortunately, the resources to facilitate these trainings have been an impediment. The money that they raise through selling soap and t-shirts is not enough to facilitate such trainings. But even before they can mobilise the resources, she is encouraging the women to adopt table banking and merry go rounds, especially if they have no idea of the loan terms. If push comes to shove, they can always contact her and she will readily offer her services in her modest capacity.
Women’s access to land is a fundamental human right that not only determines their livelihood but food security as well. According to statistics, 80% of subsistence farming labour and 70% of labour in cash crop production is provided by women. “If Kenya wants to achieve development, inequalities that prevent women’s access to land must be addressed first. As Kenya Peasants League Women Collective, we shall advocate in our modest capacity but it takes all of us to contribute in our various capacities to realise equality to land and property, for women,” she concludes.
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