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DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: Women Hold the Key to Food Security

Joyce Mulama

KAMPALA, Apr 3 2004 (IPS) - Women’s right to land ownership could change the face of Africa and speed up efforts to achieve food and nutrition security.

This is the view of some 500 delegates who attended a three-day international meeting on food security in Uganda’s capital Kampala. The gathering which ended Saturday attracted delegates from 50 countries, 30 of them from Africa.

The meeting, organised by the Washington-based International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI), sought to find a way to achieve food and nutrition security in Africa by 2020.

During the meeting, delegates heard that although women provide majority of agricultural labour in Africa, their rights to land were restricted.

Statistics from women groups show that over 70 percent of African women are involved in agricultural activities. Most African economies are heavily dependant on agriculture.

"Women must have access to resources, especially land. If they do not own the land on which they farm, that is a problem. Women in Africa must be entitled to land ownership with or without their spouses because they are the ones who make use of the land in most times," Isatou Jallow, Executive Director of Gambia’s National Nutrition Agency, told IPS in an interview.

According to African tradition, women acquire land only through marriage. In the event of death of husband or divorce, they lose the land. Despite intensive campaings, some African countries still forbid women from owning property without the consent of their spouses.

Women delegates to the meeting have called for an end to gender discrimination in land ownership to ensure equal playing field between men and women. To achieve equality, they called for the inclusion of women in politics as a way of ensuring their participation in issues relating to productive assets such as land. "Women need to be involved in decision making so that they can tackle discriminative aspects of land ownership," says Graca Machel, president of Mozambique’s Foundation for Community Development.

Eliminating gender discrimination and addressing customary laws that are unfair to women when it comes to ownership of land, remains a vital intervention to achieving a common ground between men and women, says IFPRI.

"For example, the ability to inherit land, to join a credit and savings club, to start up a small enterprise, and to survive in the event of a family breakdown must be equal for both men and women. Customary laws in many countries treat women as minors; thereby restricting their rights to such assets and opportunities," says an IFPRI report titled ‘In Women’s hands: Increasing the Effective Participation of Women In Food and Nutrition Security in Africa’.

"In Lesotho and Swaziland, women are considered legal minors: they cannot own property, enter into contracts, or receive bank loans without a male relative," says the report.

During the meeting, women demanded that governments work hand-in-hand with communities to phase out discriminatory laws. "Local community laws have to be looked into and governments should collaborate with communities to explore ways of introducing new rules that will ensure equality between men and women in land ownership," Jallow said.

She said, "Traditions cannot change within a day because they are deeply rooted. That is why governments have to be sensitive in introducing positive traditional values that are in the best interest of the community. Women whould also be educated in the latest agricultural technologies to ensure sustainable food security in Africa."

Researchers have often maintained that even though women are the backbone of Africa’s agricultural sector, they lack technological skills to boost productivity.

Rosebud Kurwijila, who is in charge of Rural Economy and Agriculture in the 53-member African Union (AU), says "empowering farmers, especially women, will be important for uptake of technologies that can enhance agricultural productivity on the continent."

Biotechnology, say researchers, can help women save time while increasing yields. IFPRI cites a project at the West Africa Rice Development Association where scientists have used biotechnology to develop a rice variety that has high yields, drought resistance and broad leaves. According to IFPRI, the variety substantially reduces weeding by women and children.

The U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation, which funds most agricultural projects in Africa, also supports biotechnology. "Biotechnology could be a technological option for small-scale farmers, mostly women, and there is need for agricultural bodies and governments to ensure that women are familiar with emerging technologies," says Gordon Conway, president of Rockefeller Foundation.

Researchers believe IFPRI’s goal of achieving food security for Africa by 2020, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, is attainable. IFPRI says there are about 800 million hungry people in the world. Of these, about 200 million are in sub-Saharan Africa.

The growing demand for gender equality, particularly in land ownership, was also discussed at a meeting of Heads of State and Government of the African Union held in Sirte, Libya on Feb. 27-28. While in Libya, African leaders committed themselves to "ensuring gender balance in access to training, education, land, natural resources, loans and development programmes."

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