Naomi Shadrack and Emily Brown on the fresh ideas and movements shaping the struggle for women to secure land – and the importance of transformative feminist approaches
In early 2022, Oxfam joined women’s rights organisations and members of the global Feminist Land Platform in a series of learning workshops. The sessions aimed to deepen our collective analysis and understanding of how change on women’s land rights does – and does not – happen from an intersectional, Southern feminist perspective.
We looked at many smart and powerful ways of ensuring women access, own and use the land on which they live and inter-depend.
“In the last 10 years, women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have taken leadership to break limitations,” one participant told us. “There are indigenous farmers, Afro-descendants who have taken the lead and piloted cases that have set precedents for the region. In Colombia, for example, there is a national platform for women’s land rights where women come together and pressurise the government to implement the laws. Individual women leaders are confronting governments and making strong proposals to recognise and implement laws.”
The challenge to social norms and legal structures
We heard from activists about the power of deeply gendered social norms on women’s land rights – and how these undermine the implementation of even the best-designed legal frameworks. As one participant explained: “A woman inheriting land is considered an abomination to the family… the presumption is that she will give away all the land to another family when she marries.”
But we also heard how things are starting to change. Participants shared their experiences of the creative, patient work now being carried out to challenge discriminatory norms and structures.
One woman from Benin said: “We work with religious leaders on social norms around access to land. We engage them to present equal land access for women as being important for food security.” Another from South Sudan, explained: “In South Sudan, women’s groups wanted to do fish and poultry farming… but they didn’t have land. They contacted the Chief and were able to get land to do their projects on leasehold. We can explore possibilities like this of using traditional systems creatively to secure land for women.”
The meaning of ‘land’
Again and again, we talked about the very different significance that “land” has for different people in different parts of the world – recognising what a fundamental impact this has on how land is seen and how decisions about it are made in the economic and political systems that dominate our lives:
“Land has different meaning for women in the South,” explained one participant. “There might be commonalities with our sisters in the North. But the reality is that most people in the South are connected to natural resources for their livelihoods and lives… the percentage is much smaller in the North.”
‘There’s more to explore still about how we see land as an asset or commodity, as opposed to a natural resource that’s part of people’s identities and communities’Workshop participant
Another said: “It is also important to recognise that women have skills, knowledge to be guardians of land and this has been there historically and traditionally. And this expertise needs to be recognised.”
We also noted how the dominant narrative of land as solely an economic ‘asset’ shapes even the development sector’s best efforts to promote women’s land rights.
“There’s more to explore still about how we see land as an asset or commodity, as opposed to a natural resource that’s part of people’s identities and communities, and what extractive capitalism and it’s commodification of all things does to the ‘value’ of land,” reflected one participant. “Not just in the way that land is seen as an economic asset – but also in the pressures on land once valued for its communal benefits. The agrarian reforms ongoing in different parts of the world still feel grounded in this capitalist understanding of land’s value.”
The importance of feminist leadership…
An overarching theme that emerged from our discussions was how transformative feminist leadership is already challenging and reclaiming Northern, male-shaped narratives and world views. One participant linked land and bodies, saying: “This is the approach in LAC… most feminist groups we work with are talking about violence against their bodies AND their territories – of our bodies as an extension of, and connection to, the land. This redefines how we understand violence – and violence against women.”
Another stressed the importance of voices from the global south: “As global governance is in flux and there is a re-emergence of the South – it is really important to amplify South feminist analysis and voices as [the] South is emerging to be at the centre of global politics.”
Participants recognised the real potential of new commitments and alliances being made as part of the global Gender Equality Forum (GEF) initiatives – and acknowledged the importance of the three GEF principles: Feminist leadership, Transformation and Intersectionality. If realised, these commitments to feminist leadership and intersectionality could bring fundamental changes to women’s land rights across the globe.
…and feminist networks
We recognised the importance of networks such as the Feminist Land Platform in these efforts and of collaborative spaces like these two workshops for sharing knowledge and experiences.
We also recognised the collective role in the short term of international activists and NGO allies in creating and finding funding for platforms and initiatives for grassroots women to influence local politics and the politics of international spaces. And we recognised too the need for longer-term continued collaborations to shift the terms of debate within the land rights, governance and wider development sector.
As one participant said: “A more feminist approach is genuinely useful – it has lots to offer us in relation to deeper change on women’s land rights… It also helps us look at root causes and drivers with ‘mainstream’ allies and audiences – in ways that are often really hard to do.”
Another added: “In solidarity, if our North Sisters can hold their multinational companies and governments accountable in their countries, that would be a great effort for the South.”
The scale of the task
As we see, there is much to be excited, inspired and hopeful about in feminist struggles for women’s land rights today. But we also have to recognise that the long history of inaction and denial of these rights will make the road to equality long and arduous.
Does the development sector really want women to have secure rights to land? After several hundred years of the status quo, the answer to this question clearly remains a resounding “no”. An important part of the road ahead, therefore, will be confronting the resistances within our sector that need some deep and honest examination in order to turn this gloomy reality around.
And listening to and shifting power to the feminist activists who lit up our workshops with their ideas and activism is an excellent place to start.
To find out more about the Learning Workshops and get slides/recordings from the sessions, please contact Naomi Shadrack by email: firstname.lastname@example.org