Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Comparing Women's land rights challenges

Women's land rights challenges in the Netherlands

Marc Wegerif

I recently attended a conference in the Netherlands (www.agricultureinanurbanizingsociety.com/UK) and as part of the conference had an opportunity to go on a field trip to some farms. I joined a trip that was to visit women entrepreneurs on farms and was of course interested in women's land and property rights. Thought you may be interested to hear about women's land and property rights from a different context so my notes are below. 

Women’s property rights 

A highlight of the "agriculture in an urbanising society" conference was getting to visit some Dutch farms involved in multi-functional agriculture. It was an opportunity to meet farmers and an opportunity to explore an issue of particular interest in my work: women’s land and property rights. 

On one farm there was an interesting tenancy arrangement that gave the husband of the women entrepreneur a lifelong tenancy right on land belonging to a private estate. He had got this from his father and it is inheritable by his children. The new large dairy building that they have built on the land is also registered in his name. If the family should decide to give up the tenancy right the land owners will pay him out the value of the building. When asked about the inheritability of the tenancy right the farmer (the husband) first confirmed that his son could inherit it. When asked about his daughters he acknowledged that it could also be inherited by them. His explanation for his wife not being included as having a tenancy right was that the owners would not like that as it does not give them security: “if I were to pass away she may bring another man”. That another man, from outside the family, might be brought in by the women should she have land rights is a classic fear I have heard expressed in many African villages. It is of course rooted in the assumption of a patrilineal passing on of rights to land and property that does not see any problem with the risk of the man bringing another woman in the future. The woman farmer declared herself happy with the arrangement and explained that she has a share of the business they run (excluding the land and new building), which is better than many women have as some, according to her, have no legal rights despite efforts to educate women on farms about the importance of securing legal rights. 

On another farm a women entrepreneur was running an accommodation operation that provides group, family and weekend getaways. She was coy about whether her operation made more money than the work her husband who runs the dairy operation, but the figures that were shared indicate she clearly made more money. The farm had been passed down from her husband’s father and grandfather to him and his brother.  She had, however, managed to get her name on the title and as a joint owner of the business. When asked how she managed this she explained the trust that had been built through eight years of marriage (during which time she lived on and developed the property of her husband and his brother) and that the opportunity opened up when the two brothers split the land between them. She also said that maybe she was “very sneaky”. This was said with humour and I am not suggesting it confirms that she was actually sneaky, but it is a reference to the classic assumption and often reality that women need to be ‘sneaky’ or manipulative to gain rights in the context of weak formal rights. 

On a third farm the women entrepreneur ran a business that had made owning and living on a piece of otherwise unviable (due to size and other limitations) farm land an option. The land and the business were, however, owned by her parents on land belonging to her parents. I did not manage to confirm, but would bet, after what I found out on the day, that it is in the name of her father. 

On all the farms there was a strong gender division of roles and an apparent deference to the husbands contribution even when the woman’s initiative was clearly of great economic and wider importance to the farm operation. We were treated to explanations such as “I look after the small animals and the administration, my husband does the hard work”. 

From an African perspective there is often an assumption that women in Europe, especially liberal countries like the Netherlands, have strong land and property rights. It was interesting on this short visit to find that women in Europe apparently face many similar challenges, related to asserting their rights, to those encountered by African women. It was fascinating to also hear a similar discourse of excuse and justification. None of the above is intended to undermine the role these women are playing, in fact for me it highlights that they are doing a great job despite the obstacles that still exist. 


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