Women’s rights to land, housing and property remain key areas where women face systematic discrimination and marginalization. According to UN-Women and OHCHR, “[r]egardless of whether a woman lives in a rural or urban setting, land rights also have major implications for the achievement and enjoyment of her human rights such as the right to equality, food, health, housing, water, work and education.” Land rights have been recognized by an increasing number of experts, donors, and advocates as playing a critical role in advancing gender equality, and in tackling issues related to other human rights concerns, such as HIV, gender based violence, and food security. UNDP and Open Society Foundations have put it very simply: “[l]and and housing are extremely empowering for women.”
In Africa, while in terms of political discourse and legal frameworks, women’s land and property rights have received greater attention than ever before in recent years, the reality for women on the ground remains relatively unchanged. The gap between equality under the law (de jure or formal) and equality in practice (de facto or substantive) remains a formidable challenge as progressive laws too often go unimplemented and under-enforced. Women are still faced with land grabbing, disinheritance and a general patriarchal attitude that claims land and property rights are for men, not women. Yet, women are not sitting idly by while their land is being denied or stripped from them – they are organizing, advocating and implementing innovative strategies that gain land justice for themselves and their communities. This work must be complemented by further advocacy at regional and international levels that advances systemic change, including through strategic litigation efforts that strengthen the legal enforcement of women’s rights, and through implementation strategies that recognize the challenges of effective change in practice.
Just how to advance these rights was a major focus of a regional meeting last month held in Nairobi, Kenya on “International Mechanisms to Claim Women’s ESC Rights in Africa,” one of a series of regional workshops organized by the Women and ESCR Working Group (WESCR Working Group) of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net). Bringing together over 35 advocates from across the region, and coordinated jointly by the WESCR Working Group, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), the workshop aimed to address the importance of using CEDAW and its Optional Protocol to advance these rights for women. Several key achievements were highlighted, building upon a growing attention given by the CEDAW Committee to women’s land and property rights, as evidenced earlier this year in the Committee’s Concluding Observations on Eritrea, Gabon, Maldives and Tuvalu.
Over the three days of the workshop, participants engaged in discussions on various issues, such as the use of relevant international and regional human rights mechanisms as key tools to advance the enjoyment of women’s ESC rights, as well as emerging standards and tools in the area of women’s land and property rights, and their use in advocacy in national, regional and international spaces. As a result, advocates discussed opportunities and strategies to utilize CEDAW and its Optional Protocol to claim women’s ESC rights, as well as their land and property rights specifically. Experiences were shared which could help more advocates successfully access the CEDAW Committee in their advocacy. For example, a representative of Tanzania’s Women’s Legal Aid Centre, which along with the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic of Georgetown University Law Center represented two widows from Tanzania who recently won their case against Tanzania using CEDAW’s Optional Protocol for violations related to denial of inheritance based on gender, was on hand during the meeting to share their experience and lessons learned from the legal case. The issue of submitting parallel reports to the Committee was also addressed during the meeting; various organizations shared their experience in building national coalitions to produce the report, in focusing on a specific topic, and in partnering with international organizations. An example of the latter is the experience of Live and Learn Maldives, which partnered with the GI-ESCR earlier this year in presenting a Parallel Report to the CEDAW Committee addressing land issues as related to women’s participation in natural resource governance and disaster management. An important issue discussed was the follow up of concluding observations by the Committee and how to interact with State actors as well as other actors in the field to ensure implementation of recommendations.
These experiences helped to solidify future efforts to use CEDAW and its Optional Protocol to claim women’s ESC rights, and particularly their rights to land, housing and property, and we are hopeful that organizations will continue to strengthen their work and collaborations.
On the horizon we also look forward to a strengthened framework and continued advocacy around these issues. We anticipate the adoption by the CEDAW Committee of a new General Recommendation on the Rights of Rural Women. Earlier this year, at a side event hosted by the GI-ESCR during the Human Rights Council on advancing women’s empowerment through eliminating discrimination in rights to land, housing and water, CEDAW Committee member Ms. Barbara Bailey (Jamaica) in her statement noted that, particularly for rural women, enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Convention is “hardly possible without access to land.” She stressed the importance of the new General Recommendation, and stressed that it will be “an integral part of CEDAW’s jurisprudence,” which will “place an obligation on States parties to take all necessary measures to empower rural women by eliminating discrimination and protecting their right to land, housing and water.” In an event planned for later this year, the WESCR Working Group also aims to facilitate continued progressive engagement with the UN through a joint consultation with the CEDAW Committee, the Committee on ESCR, and ESCR-Net members, with the aim of discussing developments and exploring opportunities for advancement at the intersection of women and ESC rights, including regarding issues related to land and property.